Despite its power, songbun is an almost-silent presence. Few people ever see their own songbun paperwork. Few low-caste families speak of it at all, exiles say, left mute by incomprehension and fear.
It is only when young people stumble into glass ceilings, normally when applying to universities or for jobs, that they begin to understand the years of slights.
Eventually, most grow to understand and accept its power, but they rarely have more than a general idea of where they fit into the pecking order, experts said.
In a country where secrecy is reflexive, the state simply denies it exists.
“This is all nonsense,” a North Korean government minder said, interrupting a visiting journalist when he tried to ask a woman about her family’s songbun. “People make up lies about my country.”
Certainly, few ordinary North Koreans understand the staggering and sometimes shifting complexities of songbun, which at its core divided the entire population into three main categories — “core,” “wavering” and “hostile” classes — and subdivided those into some four dozen subcategories.
North Koreans with songbun good enough for the top jobs will still likely get minimal salaries, but perks for the elite could include a good apartment in Pyongyang, regular electricity, access to quality medical clinics and easier admission to top schools for their children. In a culture where parents have immense influence over the choice of their children’s spouses, high-songbun partners are prized.
However, to be caught at the bottom is to be lost in a nightmare of bloodline and bureaucracy, defectors say.
“My family was in the lowest of the lowest level,” said a former North Korean coal miner who fled to South Korea in 2006, hoping to give his young sons opportunities outside the mines. “Someone from the state was always watching what we were saying, watching what we were doing ... The state treated us as if they were doing us a favor simply by allowing us to live.” The man, like other North Korean refugees interviewed for this story, spoke on condition he not be named, fearing that relatives still in the North would be punished.
When he was a boy he had hoped to be a doctor or perhaps a government official. He was a top student, he says.
However, when colleges kept rejecting him, his father finally told him the truth: His father, it turned out, had been born in South Korea, served in its army and been taken prisoner during the Korean War.
Like thousands of other southern prisoners-of-war, he disappeared into the North’s prison gulag and then was forced into the coal mines. With songbun like that, his choices were few. He would never become a government official. Getting into college, and perhaps eventually landing nonpolitical work, would have required impossibly large bribes.
North Korea’s growing network of small informal markets, a path out of desperate poverty for some, had yet to arrive in his village, deep in the countryside.
“I couldn’t live my dreams because of my father,” said the thin, ropy man, with the biceps of someone who spent 17 years swinging a pick deep underground.
However, while North Korea is often portrayed as a Soviet throwback stranded in the 1950s, a reputation it earned with decades of isolation and single-family rule, strains of change do ripple beneath its Stalinist exterior. That has created a complex and uneasy relationship between songbun and wealth.