Songbun (Korean: 출신성분, chulsin seongbun, from Sino-Korean 出身, "origin" and 成分 ,"constituent") is the system of ascribed status used in North Korea. Based on political, social, and economic background for direct ancestors as well as behavior by relatives, songbun is used to determine whether an individual is trusted with responsibility, is given opportunities within North Korea, or even receives adequate food. Songbun affects access to educational and employment opportunities and particularly whether a person is eligible to join North Korea's ruling party, the Workers' Party of Korea.
The Korean Workers’ Party Politburo passed a decree in 1957 entitled “On the Transformation of the Struggle with Counterrevolutionary Elements into an All-People All-Party Movement,” which established the policy and programs for conducting its first large-scale purges of North Korean society. The May 30th Resolution and the KWP’s Intensive Guidance Project provided the basis for songbun’s socio-political classification of the entire North Korean population by dividing the entire citizenry into three distinct loyalty groups based on family background: "friendly", "neutral", and "enemy" forces.
There are three main classifications and about 50 sub-classifications. According to Kim Il-sung, speaking in 1958, the loyal "core class" constituted 25% of the North Korean population, the "wavering class" 55%, and the "hostile class" 20%. Those with a landlord, merchant, lawyer, or Christian minister in their background are given very low status. The highest status is accorded to those descended from those who participated in the resistance against Japanese occupation during and before World War II and to those who were factory workers, laborers or peasants as of 1950. B.R. Myers, associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, summarizes the core class as consisting of "high-ranking party cadres and their families". The wavering class is reserved for average North Koreans, whereas the "hostile" class is made of possible subversive elements (e.g. former landowners). According to CIA analyst Helen-Louise Hunter, the Communists were highly successful in turning the pre-revolutionary social structure upside down, and songbun is reflective of that. In her view, the "preferred class" consists of 30% of the population, the "ordinary people" make up the middle 40%, and "undesirables" make up the bottom 30%.
Files are maintained on every North Korean by security official and party cadres from age 17 and updated every two years. In general, songbun is difficult to improve, but it can be downgraded from a variety of reasons ranging from a lack of political enthusiasm, to marrying someone of lower standing, to being convicted, or having a family member convicted of a crime, political or otherwise. Before the late 1960s, it was possible to conceal that a relative had bad songbun; however, the ancestry of all citizens was thoroughly checked starting with a 1966 census. These investigations have been suggested to have been a response to the Chinese Cultural Revolution which began in 1966. Kim Il-sung, afraid that Beijing would also interfere in his country, whether by invading or sponsoring a coup d'état (Chinese soldiers had been sent previously on "provocative incursions" into Korea), aimed to increase internal security by classifying his citizens. These investigations were repeated several times in subsequent years, for reasons varying from suspected corruption in previous checks to weeding out possible opposition.
American journalist Barbara Demick describes this "class structure" as an updating of the hereditary "caste system", combining Confucianism and Stalinism. She claims that a bad family background is called "tainted blood", and that by law this "tainted blood" lasts for three generations. She asserts, however, that North Koreans are not told of their classification, and that children can grow up without knowing about their family status. Similarly, analyst Helen-Louise Hunter describes songbun as "class background" and says that it is not officially published or precisely defined.
The North Korean government, on the contrary, proclaims that all citizens are equal and denies any discrimination on the basis of family background.
Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s to early 1990s, the importance of songbun has decreased. Before the collapse, the North Korean economy was heavily subsidized by the bloc. Through these funds, the government was able to provide all material goods, so income could only be derived by working in industry or the bureaucracy. As a result, one's ability to obtain goods from the distribution system, where one could live, what career was pursued, or how much one could advance in society depended solely on their songbun, which made it the "single-most important factor that determined the life of a North Korean". Before the centralized system's collapse—which led to famine—the government had "near-complete control of an individual's life"; ergo, the only way to increase one's status or affluence was by advancing through the bureaucracy.
As the centralized system collapsed, the importance of songbun decreased. To survive, capitalism was "rediscovered", and the average North Korean now derives most of his or her income through private enterprise. When these private markets started, it was instead more advantageous to be part of the hostile class, because they were not as dependent on the government as were those with better songbun. Military service has decreased in popularity; previously, after seven to ten years of service, a North Korean man could hope to become a low-level bureaucrat, but nowadays it is more profitable to engage in private enterprise. Songbun remains important to members of the government elite, but for the majority of North Koreans, wealth has become more important than songbun when defining one's place in society.
A prominent example of songbun involves Ko Young-hee, the mother of present leader Kim Jong-un. Ko was born in Osaka, Japan, which would make her part of the hostile class because of her Korean-Japanese heritage; furthermore, her grandfather worked in a sewing factory for the Imperial Japanese Army. Before an internal propaganda film released after ascension of Kim Jong-un, there were three attempts made to idolize Ko, in a style similar to that associated with Kang Pan-sŏk, mother of Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-suk, mother of Kim Jong-il and the first wife of Kim Il-sung. These previous attempts at idolization had failed, and they were stopped after Kim Jong-il's 2008 stroke. The building of a cult of personality around Ko encounters the problem of her bad songbun, as making her identity public would undermine the Kim dynasty's pure bloodline. Ko's real name or other personal details have not been publicly revealed (her origins could be figured out, as she worked with Mansudae Art Troupe in Pyongyang), so she is referred to as "Mother of Korea" or "Great Mother", and the most recent propaganda film called its main character "Lee Eun-mi". The complications of Ko's songbun were such that after Kim Jong-il's death, her personal information, including name, became state secrets. While songbun is usually passed from the father, Ko's background has the "lowest imaginable status qualities" for a North Korean.
- Helen-Louise Hunter; foreword by Stephen J. Solarz (1999). Kim Il-song's North Korea. Westport, Connecticut, London: Praeger. pp. 3–11, 31–33. ISBN 0-275-96296-2.
- Matthew McGrath (June 7, 2012). "Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System". NK News. Retrieved June 8, 2012.
- Robert Collins (June 6, 2012). Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved June 8, 2012.
- Andrei Lankov, “The Repressive System And The Political Control In North Korea,” in Severnaia Koreia: vchera i segodnia (North Korea: Yesterday and Today) (Moscow: Vostochnaia literatura, 1995
- Kim Yong-gu, “North Korean Residents’ Songbun,” 70-75; and Andrei Lankov, “The Repressive System And The Political Control In North Korea”
- Jerry Winzig. "A Look at North Korean Society" (book review of Kim Il-song's North Korea by Helen-Louise Hunter). winzigconsultingservices.com. Retrieved June 8, 2011. "In North Korea, one's songbun, or socio-economic and class background, is extremely important and is primarily determined at birth. People with the best songbun are descendants of the anti-Japanese guerrillas who fought with Kim Il-song, followed by people whose parents or grandparents were factory workers, laborers, or poor, small farmers in 1950. "Ranked below them in descending order are forty-seven distinct groups in what must be the most class-differentiated society in the world today." Anyone with a father, uncle, or grandfather who owned land or was a doctor, Christian minister, merchant, or lawyer has low songbun."
- B.R. Myers (2010). The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing. ISBN 978-1-933633-91-6.
- Helen-Louise Hunter,Kim Il-song's North Korea, Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 1999, pp 4-5.
- Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea, Fourth Estate, London, 2010, pp 26-27.
- Demick, pp 28, 197, 202.
- Demick, p 28.
- Helen-Louise Hunter,Kim Il-song's North Korea, Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 1999, pp 3, 6.
- KINU White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea 2011, p. 216, 225
- Andrei Lankov (2011-12-03). "North Korea's new class system". Asia Times. Retrieved 2012-07-01.
- Ko Young-ki (2012-06-26). "Happy Birthday, Ko Young Hee". Daily NK. Retrieved 2012-07-01.
- Cho Jong-ik (2012-06-30). ""Great Mother" revealed to World". Daily NK. Retrieved 2012-07-01.
- "Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System". Robert Collins, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. – Detailed description of the North Korean classification system and its impact on people’s lives
- "Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Marzuki Darusman". United Nations Human Rights Council. – Annex E. Discrimination: Division of society into three different groups of allegiance to the regime (p. 23)
- "White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea 2011". Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU). – The Reality of Civil and Political Rights 4. The Right to Equality (p. 219 – 224)
- "World Report 2006: North Korea". Human Rights Watch. – Discrimination in Education, Jobs, and Health Care
- "Political Classification and Social Structure in North Korea". Kongdan Oh , Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. – Testimony about the North Korean regime's political classification system
- "The Repressive System and Political Control in North Korea". Dr. Andrei Lankov. – Division of the North Korean population into groups
- "Effective Immobilization: Social Classification within North Koreain Comparison with Burakumin and the Untouchables". Sarah E. Kirsch. – Songbun, North Korea’s social classification system
- "North Korea's Concentration Camps for Political Prisoners". Hwang Jang-yop, Daily NK. – Who are the people in the concentration camps: Persons with bad security ratings (hostile class) and their families
- "Robert Collins: Songbun enters into everything"
- "Marcus Noland: Fissures within even the core class"
- "Andrew Natsios: Songbun system causes death through malnourishment"