Marked for Life: Songbun North Korea's Social Classification System

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This afternoon I had the distinct honor and privilege to participate in the launch event for a new report released by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Marked for Life: Songbun North Korea’s Social Classification System.  The event was hosted by AEI, and according to their website, video of the event will soon be available.

I have known the report’s author, Bob Collins, for a number of years and was delighted to hear that the Committee had successfully recruited him to author this report.  I knew that he would do a good job.

But even I did not expect the magnificent report that he has produced.  It is an extraordinarily informative piece of work and is destined to be a basic reference for anyone seeking to understand the songbun system in North Korea. At one point while writing Witness to Transformation, we got tied into knots dealing with various terminology used in the system.  It would have been an enormous help to have had this report available as a reference.

Preparing my remarks for the event, I went back and lined up his results against those we obtained in our own survey. Among the questions we asked were ones relating to their songbun classification and their father’s classification.

Among our respondents,

  • 14% indicated that they were in the core class,
  • 62% indicated that they were in the wavering class,
  • 11% indicated that they were in the hostile class, and
  • 14% indicated that they were not sure about their classification.

When asked about their father’s classification, we obtained responses that were statistically indistinguishable from the answers about their own classification, reinforcing the report’s observation that there is little cross-generational change in classification.

We did observe some downward drift in classification as the report also mentions in passing, though it is not clear if this reflects an escalator that runs in only one direction, or if it is a selection bias issue—people with bad experiences and downgraded songbun were more likely to leave the country and end up in our sample.  Either way, the picture that emerges is of a system that is essentially static across generations.

We obtained similar results for employment—there was little cross-generational movement across broad occupational categories, which is consistent with the interpretation of the relationship between songbun and employment expressed in the report.

When we examined the extent to which songbun was correlated with attitudes or behavior, we obtained an interesting nuanced set of results.

While attitudes toward the North Korean regime among the refugees were generally negative, whose who indicated that they were part of the core class had somewhat less negative views, and were more likely to indicate that they had benefitted from the changes in North Korean society over the previous decade.

This is not surprising—the core class has been treated preferentially, and they are best positioned to take advantage of emerging opportunities in the market economy, as well as the growing graft and corruption that has come to characterize the North Korean economy.

This leads me to one of the key points that I think is sometimes exaggerated in the public discussion but that I think that Bob has gotten just right in his report—namely, the relationship between songbun and the emerging market economy.

North Korea is not unchanging and one of the most profound changes over the past 20 years has been the increasing marketization of the economy.  Clearly the rise of the market has created alternative pathways toward advancement. It is for precisely that reason people like me want to strengthen the market as an institution and source of autonomy beyond direct state control. But that does not mean that the old structures are no longer relevant.

The individuals best placed to take advantage of these new opportunities—whether it be through direct participation in market-oriented activities, or through predation on those involved in the market—are in the upper reaches of the system and most likely to have “good” songbun.

So it is not a simple either/or situation: compared to 30 or 40 years ago, the growing role of money surely erodes the direct, prescriptive impact of the songbun classification system on the lives of individuals, but this rise of the market is occurring in the context of an extremely stratified social system, and it would be a major mistake to ignore the impact of this system on the observed outcomes.

Yet it was also the case that those respondents who had self-identified as members of the core class also were more likely to complain about conditions and were more likely to have communicated this dissatisfaction to their peers.

Indeed, given their higher incomes, they are more likely to be able to access outside sources of information, the consumption of which is associated with dissenting views, a finding reinforced by the recent report, A Quiet Opening, from Intermedia.

This suggests that while the regime has acted assiduously to secure the support of key constituencies, this effort has not been wholly successful, and that there are fissures even within the core class. 

In short, Bob has written a truly informative report on an important and little-understood topic. It is a real contribution to knowledge and he and the Committee should be enormously proud of this accomplishment.

The event also featured an impressive art exhibit, “Three Names,” by Evan (Ilkuk) Kim. My understanding is that either AEI or the Committee will be putting this work online as well for those who were not able to see it live. Stay tuned.

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