Marked for life: Songbun, North Korea’s social classification system

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Post-Event Summary
In the 1950s, Kim Il Sung’s songbun classification system divided the North Korean population into a loyal "core" class, a middle "wavering" class and a mistrusted "hostile" class. This Wednesday, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and AEI launched a new HRNK report entitled "Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System," and report author Robert Collins presented his findings. Collins elaborated on how this songbun status qualifies North Korean residents as for or against the regime, and stressed that it is used by the regime to control and repress the North Korean people by affecting every aspect of their lives, from nutrition and education to their jobs and housing.

Andrew Natsios of Georgetown University and HRNK listed evidence indicating that the Kim regime used the songbun system to deprive "hostile" citizens of food. He stressed the necessity of halting food aid sent through the North Korean Public Distribution System to alleviate the nourishment disparity.

Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute of International Economics and HRNK reinforced the HRNK report findings via evidence from his own survey of North Korean defectors. In his survey, although "core" class interviewees had less negative views of the Kim regime, they were nonetheless more likely to express dissatisfaction with the regime, which could indicate a central weakness in the regime's control.

All of the speakers agreed that this report is an important contribution to the growing knowledge on North Korea’s human rights violations.

--Kelly Matush

Event Description

The North Korean government assigns a “songbun” status to every citizen at birth based on the perceived political loyalty of his or her family going back generations. While a small, politically loyal class in North Korea is entitled to extensive privileges, the vast majority of citizens are relegated to a permanent lower status and then discriminated against for reasons they cannot control or change.

Although the international community often overlooks the songbun system in evaluating North Korea’s human rights record, it is at the base of human rights violations in the country. The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and AEI will be launching a new HRNK report entitled, “Marked For Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System,” which will be discussed at this event. The panel will also examine the extent to which the growing reliance on money and bribery is eroding the songbun system’s influence.

An art exhibit entitled "Three Names" by Il-kuk (Evan) Kim, a young North Korean defector, will also be on display at the event. The art exhibit explores the transformation of the artist's identity as he escaped from North Korea to South Korea and later relocated to the United States.

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