For more than a half-century, a mysterious caste system has shadowed the life of every North Korean. It can decide whether they will live in the gated compounds of the minuscule elite, or in mountain villages where farmers hack at rocky soil with handmade tools. It can help determine what hospital will take them if they fall sick, whether they go to college and, very often, whom they will marry.
It is called songbun. And officially it does not exist at all.
However, the power of caste, which North Korean exiles and scholars say was permanently branded onto every family based on their supposed ideological purity, is also quietly fraying, weakened by the growing importance of something that barely existed until recently in socialist North Korea: wealth.
Like almost all change in North Korea’s deeply opaque society, where so much is hidden to outsiders, the shift is happening slowly and often silently.
However, in the contest for power within the closed world that Pyongyang has created, defectors, analysts and activists say money is now competing with the domination of political caste.
“There’s one place where songbun doesn’t matter, and that’s in business,” said a North Korean soldier-turned-businessman who fled to South Korea after a prison stint and who now lives in a working-class apartment building on the fringes of Seoul. “Songbun means nothing to people who want to make money.”
Songbun, a word that translates as “ingredient,” but effectively means “background,” first took shape in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was a time when North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung was forging one of the world’s most repressive states and seeking ways to reward supporters and isolate potential enemies.
Songbun, which historians say was partially modeled on societal divisions in the Soviet Union, turned North Korea’s fiercely hierarchical society upside down, pushing peasants to the top of the caste ladder and aristocrats and landlords toward the bottom. The very top was reserved for those closest to Kim: His relatives and guerrillas who had fought with him against Korea’s Japanese occupiers.
Very quickly, though, songbun became a professional hierarchy. The low caste became farmers and miners. The high caste filled the powerful bureaucracies. And children grew up and stepped into their parents’ roles.
“If you were a peasant and you owned nothing, then all of a sudden you were at the top of the society,” said Bob Collins, who wove together smuggled documents, interviews with former North Korean security officials and discussions with an array of ordinary North Koreans to write an exhaustive songbun study released this year by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
While the songbun system theoretically allows for movement within the hierarchy, Collins said most families’ standing today remains a reflection of their ancestors’ position in the 1950s and 1960s. Generations after the system began, many of North Korea’s most powerful people are officially identified as “peasants.”
However, starting in the mid-1990s and accelerating in recent years, songbun — long the arbiter of North Korean life — became one part of something far more complicated.
“Songbun cannot collapse. Because that would mean the collapse of the entire system,” said Kim Hee-tae, head of the Seoul-based group Human Rights, which maintains a network of contacts in the North. “But people increasingly believe that money is more important than your background.”