Songbun (North Korea)

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songbun
Location: North Korea
North Korea map.png
Author: James Pearson and Daniel Tudor
Affiliation: independent researchers

Original text by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor

Songbun is a socio-political classification system in North Korea, according to which every citizen is assigned a class status on the basis of their perceived loyalty to the regime. Songbun classification has traditionally had a significant influence on the major life opportunities that are available to an individual, notably further education and career. However, since the turn of the century the growing importance of money in North Korean society means that in many cases the benefits of good songbun can be bought, and thus songbun classification has declined in importance for some sections of society.


The Korean word songbun comes from chulshin-songbun, a North Korean phrase meaning ‘family background’. Every citizen is assigned a class status on the basis of the socio-economic background of one’s family, including parents and grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and counsins. A second element is sahoe songbun, which is one’s individual socio-political behaviour. All North Koreans are classified into one of three classes: the ‘core’ (haeksim) or loyal class, the ‘wavering’ (dongyo) class, and the ‘hostile’ (choktae) class. Importantly, however, most North Koreans are unaware of what their songbun status is, and it is therefore something of an invisible force.


The songbun system originated from a resolution of The Workers’ Party Politburo of 30 May 1957, which introduced the concept of dividing North Korean society into loyal, neutral, and hostile groups. Broadly, loyalists were to be drawn from among those who fought alongside Kim Il Sung or from forces that pledged allegiance to him; socialist intellectuals and revolutionaries; and those who fought for the DPRK during the Korean War. Hostile persons were those who had been landowners and capitalists; those who had relatives and or strong connections with South Korea; religious groups (including Christians and shamanists); and collaborators with the old Japanese colonial regime. Neutrals were those who fell between the two. A series of lengthy investigations into the colonial era and military activities of every North Korean’s male relatives (the DPRK is patrilinealist, as well as having a feudal mindset) was conducted. This was the effective starting point of the songbun system of social classification that exists to this day.


The most common and long-standing figures state that 28 percent of North Koreans are in the loyal class, 45 percent in the neutral class, and 27 percent in the hostile class (Tudor & Pearson 2015: 163[1]). It is far easier to have one’s songbun downgraded than upgraded: one simple political mistake could bring one’s whole family into a lower class. For that reason, the hostile group estimate may well be on the low side: 40 percent may be more realistic (ibid.).


The songbunsystem has both formal and informal aspects that render it a strange hybrid of official state practice and informal governance. With regards to the formal elements, songbun is a highly entrenched system that is constantly monitored and enforced by the state. Every individual’s status appears on their government file, and is taken into account whenever someone requests a promotion, applies to a university, or is arrested. Songbun investigations are very thorough and involve many layers of bureaucracy: local police chiefs, residency registration officials, and section chiefs of the Ministry of People’s Security all have to agree on a classification, and the higher up the social ladder one goes, the greater the involvement of the State Security Department as well. Better songbun is just about the only thing that cannot be bought in today’s North Korea: the number of people one would need to bribe to significantly alter one’s songbun would render the whole venture impossible.


However, the songbun system may also be regarded as informal in several respects. The DPRK regime publicly denies that such a system even exists, despite the fact that the vast majority of its citizens appear to be aware of it (Collins 2012: 3-4[2]). Songbun thus represents a society-wide open secret: universally known, but conspicuously absent from official discourse (Ledeneva 2011: 724-5[3]). Significantly, the government does not inform citizens of their songbun status, and indeed many people are not aware what their precise songbun status is. In these respects, the songbun system is comparable to other informal systems of governance used by totalitarian regimes to control their citizenry, such as Zersetzung in the GDR (see entry in this volume).


Bad songbun can adversely affect a person’s life in a very diverse range of ways. The military does not allow those of the very lowest songbun to serve. Poor songbun has also prevented athletes from being selected for national sports teams. There are many reports from defectors of being passed over for jobs in favour of lesser-qualified, but better-born, competitors. Similarly, a person of good songbun who commits a crime may find leniency from a judge, where one with bad songbun would not.


Due to the effect of socialisation over the course of two or three generations, songbun has outgrown its political origins and evolved into a class system in its own right. An individual who possesses good songbun will almost inevitably study and work mainly with others of good songbun, in superior schools and workplaces. They will probably live in a relatively decent apartment building, alongside others with good songbun. Moreover, individuals with good songbun almost always marry someone who has comparable songbun. If someone happens to fall in love with someone with bad songbun, that person will probably be poorer and of lower social status, prompting opposition from the higher songbun parents. In Korean culture, parental opposition is an almost insurmountable obstacle to a match; indeed, this is still just about true even in South Korea, where most survey recipients say they would not defy their parents by marrying someone they did not approve of. In any case, given that people only tend to mix with those of similar songbun status, the chance of meeting and falling in love with a person of different songbun is in practice quite low.


The influence of songbun has been somewhat eroded in the post-famine era (around 2000 onwards). Other than fear of punishment, money is the prime motivating force in today’s North Korea (see entry on jangmadang in this volume). Although one cannot buy better songbun itself, one can buy the effects of better songbun – university places, coveted jobs, high-quality apartments, medical care, greater freedom of movement, and immunity from prosecution or harsh punishment, in most cases. This is a phenomenon that has been observed in many countries making the change from a feudal to a market-based system. Many of the growing entrepreneurial class have poorsongbun, but it scarcely makes a difference in their lives. The practice of bribing to gain better jobs is now very common in North Korea, although there are limits as to how high one can reach. Officialdom is full of lower-level people bribing their higher-ups, in the hope of moving up the hierarchy. Under a ‘normal’ government, money is collected by the top levels and distributed downwards; under the post-famine DPRK government, it travels the other way.


Nevertheless, songbun has not been completely circumvented. While corruption and capitalism are providing the sharp operator and the talented outlier with opportunities to rise that they would never have had under Kim Il Sung, songbun still gives great advantages to some, whilst holding others back. Songbun is no longer the sole deciding factor, but it is a gigantic head start. Ambitious and hard-working officials, who owe their position to high songbun, are the ones who are best placed to take advantage of major business opportunities (see entry on jangmadang in this volume). Those barred from such opportunities are becoming increasingly disgruntled, according to a number of sources. When defections from North Korea became commonplace in the wake of the famine of 1994-8, the driving force behind the trend was the simple need to eat. Today, though, more and more defectors were actually able to live relatively well in North Korea, but simply feel aggrieved that they have hit a ceiling due to their social status. Baljeon mothaettda (‘I couldn’t develop myself [in North Korea]’) is now one of the reasons being cited for defection (Tudor and Pearson 2015: 168[4]).


Ultimately, songbun acts as an anti-meritocratic force, giving unearned advantages and disadvantages to people based on an accident of birth. The fact that state officials virtually inherit their position due to good songbun and family ties likely incentivises them to be lazy; their main activity is the collection of bribes. In this respect, songbunis arguably little different from class, caste or patronage systems found elsewhere in the world. The difference is that, rather than gradually evolving as a spontaneous social order, songbun was artificially designed and implemented by a revolutionary regime to cement its political power, thus ensuring that class distinctions entrenched themselves very quickly following the almost total levelling of the social hierarchy caused by the Korean War of 1950-3.

References and Bibliography

  1. Hunter, H. 1999. Kim Il-song's North Korea (Westport, Conn.: Praeger)
  2. Korea Institute for National Unification. 2015. White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea 2015 (Seoul: Korea Institute for National Unification)

Notes

  1. Tudor, D. and Pearson, J. 2015. North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing)
  2. Collins, R. 2012. Marked for Life: Songbun. North Korea’s Social Classification System, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Washington DC
  3. Ledeneva, Alena. 2011. ‘Open Secrets and Knowing Smiles’, East European Politics and Societies, 25(4): 720-736
  4. Tudor, D. and Pearson, J. 2015. North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing)