‘Marked for Life’ in North Korea

In North Korea, every individual, at birth, is assigned to one of 51 categories depending on his or her deemed trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family regime. These categories are in turn grouped into one of three castes: core, wavering, or hostile. In an extensive report released this month, Robert Collins, the influential North Asia analyst, describes the songbun system as “a deliberate state policy of discrimination.”

That discriminatory system is the most fundamental tool the Kim family uses in controlling 23 million people. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is among the most repressive states on earth—Freedom House puts it at the bottom of its category of the “Worst of the Worst”—and songbun is the basis of its totalitarian control. 

As Collins notes, the “heredity-based class and socio-political rank” each person receives “determines all aspects of his or her life.” In effect, the classification has made about a third of the North Korean population slave laborers.

And sometimes, a person’s songbun determines whether he or she lives or dies. In 1958, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state, publicly revealed the allocation of the population among the three large songbun classes: the core class constituted 25 percent of the population, the wavering class 55 percent, and hostile class the remaining 20 percent. These percentages, incredibly, roughly corresponded to the results of the first nationwide nutritional survey of North Korean children, conducted in 1998 by the UN’s World Food Program, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the European Union. The survey found that 32 percent of children showed no evidence of malnutrition, 62 percent exhibited signs of moderate malnutrition, and 16 percent were acutely malnourished.

In that famine, the state lost effective control over large parts of the countryside. Yet the regime, despite everything, did not abandon songbun and was eventually able to reimpose the hated classification system. Today, the process of digitalization has enabled the Kim family to expand the reach of the rankings, making them even more effective. True, individuals in the lowest songbun classifications can bribe officials to mitigate the system’s discriminatory effects, yet the concept remains in place, just as abhorrent as before.

What can we do about songbun? Collins’s report, issued by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, contains many recommendations, but the most important is a general one, that we recognize the essential nature of the Kim family regime. As he writes, “Much of the problem with Western calls for improvements in North Korean human rights is the lack of recognition that songbun lies at the core of North Korea’s human rights violations.” Once we think about the implications of songbun, it becomes clear we must shun the Kim regime, just as the world sanctioned South Africa for apartheid. The only difference is that songbun is far more insidious than apartheid ever was.

Yet today we continue to talk to the world’s most repressive state. This, in many ways, is the essential challenge to the West, to deal with hard-line governments that are, in every sense of the word, hideous.


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