North Korea has more than 24 million citizens but is one of the most secretive and repressive societies in the world.
Few individuals outside of North Korea are aware of the cultural reckoning there, called the "songbun" system, a bienniel investigation used to categorize every North Korean as a loyal “core” class, a middle “wavering” class or a lowly “hostile” class, with the three groupings divided into 51 more specific categories.
One’s songbun classification determines many fundamental life qualities, including the type of housing provided, ability to attend a university, career choice, access to and quality of medical treatment and amount, if any, of rations during famines.
The first songbun investigations were conducted in 1958, in which one-third of all North Koreans were classified as members of the hostile class. As a result of the findings, 6,000 individuals were given prison sentences and 70,000 were banished to isolated inhospitable areas.
When an individual is sentenced to a political prison camp, families generally accompany them because they are considered guilty by association. Currently, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 citizens live in political prisoner camps.
The Kim regime's all-important military consumes 30 percent of the "core" class, including 100 percent of generals and admirals and 80 percent of officers.
Conviction of a political crime will not only cause one’s songbun to fall to rock bottom, but so will that of one’s family members up to third degree relatives. Moving up in songbun category requires a lifetime of devotion to the Kim regime. These occasions are not common.
The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and the American Enterprise Institute has released a new HRNK report entitled, “Marked For Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System. Accompanying it is a presentation by artist Ilkuk (Evan) Kim, who has released a book, Three Names, chronicling his transformation from a young defector who left North Korea for South Korea and later immigrated to the United States.
Several of Kim's paintings can be viewed here. Click the expand button to see it in full-screen and scroll over the individual images to read Kim's vivid and tragic descriptions of life in North Korea.