NORTH KOREAN SOCIETY
A Russian diplomat posted in Pyongyang in the 1980s told the New York Times, “North Korea is a semi-feudal society that is still based on traditionally Korean values. There are traces of modernity, but if you look at the structure of thinking, it is very traditional, in a medieval sense.” One group of Japanese who lived in North Korea near the Chinese border in the 1930s were surprised how his little their town had changed when they returned in 1996.
Journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote, “The very idea of private life is almost unthinkable. Every move and utterance is planned and scripted, with an people endlessly mobilized for a cult of hysterical adulation....Everybody is a soldier. Everybody is an informer. Everybody is a unit. Everything is propaganda.”
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) is a socialist society with a Soviet style authoritarian political system in which the leadership emphasizes the formulation of a distinctively Korean style of socialism termed juche. Its antithesis is "flunkeyism", or sadejuui, which traditionally referred to subordination to Chinese culture but has come to mean subservience to a foreign power. North Korean leaders label as "flunkeyism" anything that they wish to criticize as excessively dependent on foreign influence. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
The North Korean regime has attempted to break with its China-dependent Confucian past, but the more authoritarian strains in Confucian thought are reinforced by the authoritarianism of Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism and by contemporary social values. Like the ideal Confucian ruler, North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are depicted as morally perfect leaders whose boundless benevolence earns them the gratitude and loyalty of the masses.*
Kim Il Sung's domination of the political system after 1948 and his formulation of juche ideology has made him the focus of an intense personality cult comparable to, and perhaps even more extreme, than that of Joseph Stalin. Through means of the state-controlled media and the education system, which includes an elaborate network of "social education" institutions aimed at creating a proper environment for the rearing of North Korean youth, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are the focus of nationwide veneration.*
North Korea's rigidly hierarchical social structure resembles that of pre-modern Korea: an unequal society, both in terms of status and economic rewards. The rulers are at the apex, next come a small elite of Korean Workers' Party (KWP) officers, then a larger group of KWP cadres, and, finally, the majority of the population. At the bottom of the social-political pyramid are the politically suspect, including those whose relatives fled to the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) after 1945. The treatment of people is largely determined by political criteria. For example, talented people with "tainted" political backgrounds usually find it impossible to attend a college or university.*
Insight into this cloistered society has benefited since the late 1980s from North Korea's release of statistics about its population, health conditions, educational enrollment, and other data previously kept secret. This information suggests that as of July 1991, the approximately 21.8 million North Koreans have life expectancies, health conditions, and mortality rates roughly equivalent to those of South Korea, which at that time had about twice the population. In the early 1990s, however, relatively limited information is available on living standards, especially for those living outside the capital city of Pyongyang.
“People sometimes think life there is silly—they go to Kim Jong-un church and put on wacky parades,” Michael Malice, author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, told Playboy.com. “But it’s not that way. In many ways it’s much worse than we imagine and in many ways much better, in that these people have humanity. When you go there and interact with them, they are shockingly normal, given that they are in the most abnormal country on earth.” [Source: Luke O'Neil, Playboy.com, April 9, 2018]
Glimpses of North Korean Society from the Tour Bus
Staffan Thorsell wrote in The Guardian: “A stunningly beautiful, twentysomething woman dressed in black performs her death wail in the main hall of an obscenely luxurious palace in central Pyongyang. Her face seems to contort as her voice breaks over and over again. Speaking in a monotone, a guide translates the weeper's words into English: "The departed supreme leader's love will fill our hearts for eternity …" The voice just keeps going, and in a glass cage in the middle of the room lies the embalmed body of Kim Jong-il. [Source: Staffan Thorsell, The Guardian, February 27, 2014]
“The weeper is here to preach the everlasting omnipotence of North Korea's second leader and to express the grief of a nation more than two years after his death. Everyone in the mausoleum bows their heads before the body – or perhaps the wax doll – flanked by North Korean army officers at attention. Anything else would be intolerable and would result in immediate arrest.
“In a bookshop in central Pyongyang, where the stock, by the way, consists only of books by one of the leaders or written as a tribute to them – two staff members witness an unfamiliar, foreign customer folding a copy of the Pyongyang Times and placing it under his arm. They instantly begin gesturing at the visitor and snap at the accompanying guide, who flushes red and gets a wild look in his eyes. "Take the newspaper out and unfold it," the guide prompts. "Unfold it!" No image of any of the leaders may be folded, rolled up or otherwise treated disrespectfully. And the front page of the Pyongyang Times always carries a picture of the leader. The guide is embarrassed and has to apologise on his client's behalf – and on his own.
“At Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang, groups of about 100 people wait for their turn, then climb the steps leading to the 20–metre tall bronze statues of the first leader, the eternal president, Kim Il-sung, and his successor, Kim Jong-il. At the feet of the two statues they then bow in unison. A few blocks away, thousands have gathered for mass dancing to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-il. With national hymns exploding from loudspeakers, men, women and children unite in what sometimes resembles line dancing.
“Apart from the odd nationalist-propaganda poster and the very scarce shop signs, there are no written words. Not a single poster, not a trace of , no magazines, books or brochures. Theoretically – if you had the money – you could get the Pyongyang Times, but most people only get to read the newspaper in public, its pages displayed in frames across the capital. A city without written words or images – where every wall and every flat surface is completely empty – is a remarkable sight.”
Social Problems and Control in North Korea
Suicide (deaths per 100,000 people): 10.56 (compared to 34.64 in Sri Lanka and 1.41 in Jamaica. [Source: World Health Organization, World Life Expectancy worldlifeexpectancy.com ]
Government officials claim that no murder or rape has ever been committed in North Korea, and there are no prisons in the country. According to the New York Times, these officials admit that maybe a few ideologically- corrupt thieves have been admitted to "reeducation centers" but reports from North Korea say that these centers are filled with "criminals," political prisoners and their relatives who often die during the course of their re-education. [Source: Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”:“The participation in political organizations occupies an important place in the everyday lives of North Koreans. By definition, every citizen in North Korea belongs to at least one political organization and this replaces a system of social control: the Korean Democratic Women's Union, the Korean Congress of Trade Unions, the Korean Socialist Labor Youth League, the Korean Farmers' Union, the Korean Press Association, the Korean Association of Writers and Artists, or the Korean Young Pioneers. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
“Technically, all those who live on North Korean soil are North Korean citizens except for those who already have foreign citizenship, such as diplomats and visitors. North Koreans have citizens' certificates identifying their class origin and current address. No one in North Korea is allowed to change their residence at will: they have to apply to move to another province or town and have a legitimate reason, such as marriage. Not even weekend journeys or holidays are left to individual discretion; one has to apply for such a trip through the appropriate authorities. Family holidays must be approved by the authorities, and normally families have to wait for their vacation quota. Sometimes individuals who distinguish themselves in devotion to the party and the state are rewarded with a family vacation.
“Contrary to the traditional registration system of Korea, which was based on family registration, North Korean registration is based on individual identification. Each individual is subject to regular investigation by the authorities for the purpose of classification and reclassification according to class origin. For example, a person who commits a crime might be reclassified in terms of "soundness" of origin.
Laibach’s Impressions of North Korea
In August 2015, Slovenian avant-garde, industrial rock band Laibach became the first Western rock band to perform in North Korea, playing in front of about 2,000 people in two shows in Pyongyang. Kory Grow wrote in Rolling Stone: “The band, which formed in 1980 in what was then the communist country Yugoslavia and is now Slovenia, performed a short set that was mostly composed of tunes from The Sound of Music and other covers, as well as some Laibach originals at the city’s Ponghwa Theatre and an acoustic set at the Kum Song music school. The shows, dubbed the Liberation Day Tour, marked the 70th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japan after World War II. [Source: Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, August 25, 2015]
Rolling Stone asked Laibach’s leader Ivo Saliger what the band liked and disliked North Korea. Speaking for the band he said: ““Our first impression of the country was, "This is just like we expected... but it is somehow completely different." A few days later, we were thinking about an option to be able to "live and stay there to reach the higher wisdom in ourselves." The country may be poor and isolated, with a heavily oppressive political system, but the people are fantastic and they seem to possess the precious wisdom that we don't.” [Source: Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, August 25, 2015]
“The general people of Korea are definitely the brightest jewel in the country. We couldn't find any cynicism, sarcasm, irony, vulgarity and other "Western characteristics" in their eyes, on their faces and in their behavior. It was nothing but sincere modesty, kindness, proudness and respect. There was no military parade for the 70th Anniversary of Freedom, only people dancing gracefully instead everywhere on the streets and parks of Pyongyang.
“Traffic policewomen are big fun to observe. They perform the most intriguing biomechanical, almost robotic ritual in the middle of the crossroads, probably all day long.” What we didn't like is the fact that we were not allowed to move around freely, but in a country that is almost hermetically isolated from the outside world and thus from all the media pollution, foreigners are toxic subjects that could potentially spreading their ideological disease to the inhabitants of this communist Utopia, the collective "Truman show."
“North Koreans laugh, smile and joke a lot and people across the country are incredibly well and "dignifying" dressed. They learn foreign languages; children begin to learn English at the age of seven. Koreans are keen to open up to the outside world, but they want to do it slowly, on their own terms, and in a very different way than the Chinese.”
What would surprise people about North Korea? “They produce excellent beer. It is actually considered a soft drink and microbreweries there are popular. You can also drink beer freely from an open container outside on the street and smoke inside hotels and bars without a risk of prison. Pyongyang, with the rest of the country, is also probably the safest place in the world to walk around — if they let you walk around, of course. And for those who are into cannabis, North Korea is a very liberal place, where possession of cannabis is in fact essentially legal.”
Organization of North Korean Society
The vast majority of North Koreans are ordinary citizens who are divided and subdivided into ranks according to their family history and revolutionary or unrevolutionary origin. Status is regularly reviewed, and if any member of the family commits an antirevolutionary crime, other members of the family are also demoted in status.
People who work together, often live together and attend almost daily indoctrination and self-criticism sessions together. Every member of a household is held responsible for their own actions put also the actions of the family and kin. If one person does something wrong all of his relatives are punished. Immediate family members are often imprisoned with the accused and more distant relatives lose their job and are shipped off to the provinces. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “Every North Korean is classified through a registry in Pyongyang that divides the population into three groups.” See Below. To ensure that North Koreans know they are being watched without knowing by whom, the state maintains three separate internal security forces, which report to the leadership, but not to one another. In addition, people who work together are usually assigned to live together in the same housing blocks, and to take part in near-daily indoctrination and self-criticism sessions, from which nobody in North Korea except the Leader is exempt. Underpinning this whole apparatus - the most invasive and pervasive scheme for creating a monolithic culture in history - is a principle of collective family responsibility that makes every member of a household accountable for the conduct of his immediate kin, so that the deviations of one are the calamity of all. [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]
Social Hierarchy of North Korea
North Korea is a rigid hierarchal society. It is divided by an official registry in Pyongyang into three categories: 1) the “core class” party elite, military leaders and favored artists, who live relative well and receive a number of privileges denied ordinary North Koreans; 2) the “wavering classes,” which make up about three quarters of all North Korean who are loyal to party but do not receive the same privilege as the core classes; and 3) the “impure” or “hostile class,” made of up ideological suspect of former landowners, businessmen, Japanese collaborators, people with relatives in South Korea and the families and ancestors of these people. They are the lowest of the low. There used to 51 sub classes to which people were assigned based on regular reviews that determined their Party loyalty and mastery of juche philosophy. This system began to break down in the 1990s. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]
Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “At the top is the 'core class' of party memberswho enjoy preference in education, employment and virtually all other social and economic benefits, including food, clothing and shelter. In the middle are the masses, the 'wavering class', composed of the peasants and workers who are tirelessly extolled in party rhetoric, but whose ration cards, before the famine, allowed them only dog meat when the core class got pork or beef. On the bottom is the 'impure' or 'hostile class', in which the ideologically unsound - members of the pre-revolutionary 'exploiting class', former landowners, businessmen, pro-Japanese colonial collaborators and people with family members who have defected to the South - are lumped together with the handicapped and common criminals. [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]
According to North Korean sources cited by Eberstadt and Banister, total membership in the KWP in 1987 was "over 3 million," or almost 15 percent of the estimated population of 20.3 million that year. Membership in the party requires a politically "clean" background. Given the KWP's status as a revolutionary "vanguard party," these individuals clearly constitute an elite; it is unclear, however, how the standards of living of lower echelon party members differ from those of nonparty members. Nonetheless, party membership is clearly the smoothest path for upward social mobility. It opens opportunities such as university attendance to members and their children. The statecontrolled media repeatedly exhorts party members to eschew "bureaucratism" and arrogance in dealing with nonparty people. But it is unclear how successful the regime is in uprooting the centuries-old tradition of kwanjon minbi (honor officials, despise the people), which often make the traditional aristocratic yangban elite insufferably arrogant.
Social Classes in North Korea
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Analysts speak of two economic classes in North Korea: the relatively well-off military and party elite and Pyongyang residents, and the average citizens elsewhere. Widening the wealth gap further, elites have more access to black-market luxury goods than 15 years ago now that the government’s distribution system has started to break down.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2006]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: The highest ranking people in North Korea are Kim Il Sung's family and relatives, followed by his old comrades and their families, who used to be referred to as revolutionary fighters, denoting their participation in the anti-Japanese armed resistance. The next stratum is made up of the families of Korean War veterans and anti-South Korea sabotage officers. The children of this class typically are educated in schools for the bereaved children of the revolutionaries and face better career opportunities. Women generally lag behind men in high-status positions in society, but a daughter of an established revolutionary can rank very high in both the party and the government. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Although Japan had promoted some industrialization in the northern part of their Korean colony during the occupation, most of the Korean Peninsula's population before 1945 were farmers. North Korea's industrialization after the Korean War, however, transformed the nature of work and occupational categories. In the late 1980s, the government divided the labor force into four categories: "workers," who were employed at state-owned enterprises; "farmers," who worked on agricultural collectives; "officials," who performed nonmanual labor and probably included teachers, technicians, and health-care workers as well as civil servants and KWP cadres; and workers employed in "cooperative industrial units," which Eberstadt and Banister suggest constitute a minuscule private sector. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
North Korean government statistics showed that the state "worker" category constituted the largest category in 1987, or 57 percent of the labor force. Farmers comprised the second largest category at 25.3 percent; and officials and industrial cooperative workers, 16.8 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively. Within the "worker" category, skilled workers in the fisheries and in the heavy, mining, and defense industries tend to be favored in terms of economic incentives over their counterparts in light and consumer industries; the labor force in urban areas tend to be favored over farmers. Despite the small size of the "cooperative industrial sector," that is, the industrial counterpart of the cooperative (collective) farms enterprise, a black market apparently exists, with prices as much as ten times higher than those in the official distribution system. Farmers' markets also exist. The black market is not likely to be large enough to foster the emergence of a sizable, shadowy class of smugglers and entrepreneurs.*
With the exception of disabled Korean War veterans, physically handicapped people appear to be subject to special discrimination, according to international human rights organizations. For example, they are not allowed to enter Pyongyang, and those who manage to live in the capital are periodically sought out by the police and expelled. These sources also allege that persons of below-normal height (dwarfs) have been forced to live in a special settlement in a remote rural area. South Korean sources also cite examples of single women over forty years of age who are considered social misfits and are thus harassed.*
Inequality in North Korea
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Although the government officially claims that North Korea is a classless society that has done away with the remnants of feudalism and capitalism, it is clearly a class society starkly divided between the politically powerful and politically powerless, with an unequal distribution of monetary and nonmonetary privileges.” [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Although socialism promises a society of equals in which class oppression is eliminated, most evidence shows that great social and political inequality continues to exist in North Korea in the early 1990s. The state is the sole allocator of resources, and inequalities are justified in terms of the state's political and economic imperatives. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are described by unsympathetic foreign observers as living like kings. (The South Korean film director Sin Sangok and his actress wife, Ch'oe Unhui, who were apparently kidnapped and taken to North Korea on Kim Jong Il's orders, described him as a fanatic film buff with a library of 15,000 films; they claimed that he alone could view these films, which were collected for his benefit by North Korean diplomats abroad.) Equally important from the standpoint of social stratification, however, is a small and clearly defined elite within the ruling KWP, who, like the privileged communists listed in the former Soviet Union's nomenklatura, a listing of positions and personnel, have emerged as a "new class" with a relatively high standard of living and access to consumer goods not available to ordinary people. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
Food and other necessities of life are strictly rationed, and different occupational groups are reported to receive different qualities and kinds of goods. Sin Sangok and Ch'oe Unhui wrote in the South Korean media in the late 1980s that consumption of beef and pork is largely restricted to "middle-class" and "upper-class people"; "ordinary people" can obtain no meat except dog meat, which is not rationed. An exception is made for the New Year's holidays, Kim Il Sung's birthday, and other holidays, when pork is made available to all. They also report that the regime is actively encouraging sons to assume the occupations of their fathers and that "job succession is regarded as a cardinal virtue in North Korea." [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
Housing is another area of social inequality. According to a South Korean source, North Korea has five types of standardized housing allotted according to rank; the highest ranks — the party and state elite — live in one- or two-story detached houses. Sixty percent of the population, consisting of ordinary workers and farmers, live in multi-unit dwellings of no more than one or two rooms, including the kitchen.*
Family background, in terms of political and ideological criteria, is extremely relevant to one's social status and standard of living. Sons and daughters of revolutionaries and those who died in the Korean War are favored for educational opportunities and advancement. For these children, a special elite school, the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Institute, was established near Pyongyang at the birthsite of Kim Il Sung. South Korean scholar Lee Mun Woong wrote that illegitimate children are also favored because they are raised entirely in state-run nurseries and schools and are not subject to the corruption of traditionally minded parents.*
Conversely, the children and descendants of "exploiting class" parents — those who collaborated with the Japanese during the colonial era, opposed agricultural collectivization in the 1950s, or were associated with those who had fled to South Korea- -are discriminated against. They are considered "contaminated" by the bad influences of their parents and have to work harder to acquire reputable positions. Relatives of those who had fled to South Korea are especially looked down on and considered "bad elements." Persons with unfavorable political backgrounds are often denied admission to institutions of higher education, despite their intellectual qualifications.*
Songbun: North Korea’s Caste System
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “North Koreans are rated through a system called “songbun,” designed by Kim Il Sung in the 1950s to measure loyalty. At the bottom of the heap is the “hostile class.” In the middle, the “wavering class.” The most loyal North Koreans are part of the “core class,” who are eligible for membership in the ruling Workers’ Party and can be assigned homes and jobs in Pyongyang, the capital. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2011]
Tim Sullivan of Associated Press wrote: “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. [Source: Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, 29 December 2012]
Songbun, a word that translates as “ingredient” but effectively means “background,” first took shape in the 1950s and ‘60s. 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. Historians say songbun was partially modeled on Soviet class divisions, and echoes a similar system that China abandoned in the 1980s amid the growth of the market economy there. In Korea, songbun turned a fiercely hierarchical society upside down, pushing peasants to the top of the caste ladder; 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.
“The power of caste remains potent, exiles and scholars say, generations after it was permanently branded onto every family based on their supposed ideological purity 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 ‘60s. Generations after the system began, many of North Korea’s most powerful people are officially identified as “peasants.”
Tim Sullivan of Associated Press wrote: 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’s 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. [Source: Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, 29 December 2012]
“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 American 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.
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “There was a rumor during the mourning period for Kim Il Sung that we were being graded in how we showed our grief. If you didn’t go out to mourn with the others, you would be in disfavor and that would count against you in the future,” said Yoo, the defector whose wife and son died. “Especially for the people in Pyongyang, they had to show they were the most faithful.” Other defectors say that people were punished or received downgrades of their status for wearing makeup or nice clothing, drinking or appearing to be in good spirits during the mourning period. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2011]
At the Bottom of Songbun
Tim Sullivan of Associated Press wrote: “To be caught at the bottom, defectors say, is to be lost in a nightmare of bloodline and bureaucracy. “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. [Source: Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, 29 December 2012]
“When he was a boy he had hoped to be a doctor, or perhaps a government official. He was a top student, he says. But 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 POWs, 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.”
Decline of Songbun
Tim Sullivan of Associated Press wrote: Today Songbun “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. [Source: Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, 29 December 2012]
“But 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.”
“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.”
Songbun Versus Wealth and Markets
Tim Sullivan of Associated Press wrote: “But 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. Most North Koreans have never met a foreigner, seen the Internet, or earned more than a couple hundred dollars a month — but those in a growing economic elite now fly to Beijing and Singapore to shop. It’s a country where human rights groups say well over 100,000 political prisoners are held in a series of isolated prison camps, but where an exclusive European firm, Kempinski, hopes to be running a hotel soon. [Source: Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, 29 December 2012]
“The market economy first took hold during the rule of Kim Jong Il, the son of the nation’s founder, who ran the country from the 1990s until his death in late 2011, when his son then took control. In the mid-1990s, poor harvests and the end of Soviet assistance lead to widespread famine. Official controls relaxed as hunger tore at the country.
“Reluctantly, the government allowed the establishment of informal markets, with ordinary people setting up stalls to sell food, clothes or cheap consumer goods. Since then, the government has alternately allowed the markets to flourish and cracked down on them, leaving many people working in legally gray areas. At the same time, state-sanctioned trade has also blossomed, much of it mineral exports to China.
“While many defectors and analysts say songbun remains a commanding presence in everyday life, a handful feel the growth of markets has reduced the caste system to little more than a bureaucratic shell. But to some extent, in a murky economy where nearly any major business deal requires under-the-table payments, most analysts believe it is the same songbun elite that profits in the business world. They are part of an informal club that gives them access to powerful contacts. If they need help finalyzing a black market business deal, they have people to call.
““Who gets the bribes?” asked Collins, who believes the caste system remains deeply entrenched. “It’s the guys at the upper levels of songbun.” This is also a time when songbun often has a price, even if no one bothers quoting it in North Korea’s unstable currency, the won. “It costs five to ten pheasants to get into a good university,” said Kang Cheol Hwan, a prominent North Korean defector, using North Korean slang for 10,000-yen Japanese bills, which show two of the birds and are worth about US$125 apiece. “The price goes up as the background goes down.”
While amounts like that remain unimaginable for most in North Korea, where the per capita GDP is estimated at US$1,800 per year, the small consumer class is growing — and looking for ways to get ahead, no matter their songbun. While high-level government jobs remain restricted to those with excellent songbun, the low-caste also now have ways to get ahead. If they can afford it. “Increasingly, there are ways to buy your way into jobs,” said the former soldier and businessman, a short man with thick shoulders, huge hands and an expression frozen in a scowl.
“Today, it’s possible to make serious money in North Korea. There are Mercedes for the tiny population of truly rich, and Chinese-made sedans for the aspiring-to-be-rich. North Korean arrivistes can buy toddler-sized battery-powered cars for their children. The ex-soldier doesn’t want to talk about his songbun — though it becomes clear it was closer to the bottom than the top — but he says he eventually got a government job importing raw materials from China, then reselling them in North Korea. “You can’t get the jobs at the very top, but you can buy your way into the lower end of the top jobs,” he said. Before he was arrested and sent to prison for helping smuggle someone into China, he says he could make up to US$5,000 a month — a fortune for a man raised in a mining village in the rugged, poverty-savaged northeast.
“But is this changing system, with the ever-increasing power of money, any fairer than one based purely on songbun? Certainly it is no gentler. Getting rich in North Korea isn’t easy, with the bribes, the thugs and the risk of getting handed over to the authorities. The people who succeed are often like the former soldier, with his air of menace and his run-ins with the law. What he describes as the ideological brutality of his youth has given way to something else, a hard-to-define tangle where it’s often impossible to separate songbun from corruption and the Darwinian brutality of the market economy.”
Confucianism and Koreans
Many norms and mores of Korean society are rooted in the tenets of Confucianism, a system of ethics developed in China around 500 B.C. and is named after the Chinese scholar Confucius (551-479 B.C.). Confucianism emphasizes devotion and respect towards elders, parents, family and people in positions of authority. Many Koreans attribute their country's remarkable success in recent decades to these values. In modern Korean society, Confucianism is most noticeable in relations between people. The Five Relationships prescribe behavior between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, old and young, and between friends. If you fall outside any of these relationships, it is said, you do not effectively exist. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]
Even though South Korea seems very modern and secular and is very technologically advanced and Westernized, Confucianism remains very strong in the way people respect their elders, teachers and mentors, the way friends refer to each other as junior and senior, the way conservative morality endures and the way corporations and organizations have been structured.
Koreans often strike Westerners as not being very logical. One reason for this is that they have been brought up with the Korean form of Confucianism, which puts a strong emphasis on following teachers, superiors, family members and elders with unquestioned authority rather than thinking for themselves.
Koreans have traditionally relied on superiors to tell them what to do and thus have been reluctant to assert themselves. Mentors and teachers are honored, even revered. There is a deference to command authority. People often ask your age not because they are particularly nosey but because they want to know where you fit into the Confucian scheme and know how you fit in terms of being an older person or younger so they know how to address you. After decades of maintaining their Confucian values and strong work ethic, Koreans are now showing more of an interest in materialism, money and superficial success.
Confucian Traditions and Modernity in North Korea
The extent to which the Confucian values of the Chosun Dynasty continue to exert an influence on North Korean society in the 1990s is an intriguing question that cannot be adequately answered until outside observers can gain greater access to the country. The regime practices a very strict regimen of "revolutionary tourism" for those few people allowed to visit the country, so observing everyday life and gleaning opinions and attitudes are impossible. The average tourist views countless monuments to Kim Il Sung, revolutionary theatrical performances, model farms and factories, large, new apartment complexes, and scenic splendor, but hears little of what the people really think or feel. Confucianism clearly does not serve as a formal ideology or social ethic (being condemned because of its history of class exploitation, its cultural subservience to a foreign state, and as a contradiction of the juche ideology). Yet its more authoritarian and hierarchical themes seem to have made the population receptive to the personality cult of Kim Il Sung. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
This authoritarian strain of Confucianism has apparently survived, transformed by socialist and juche ideology. It appears that Pyongyang has chosen to co-opt some of the traditional values rather than to eradicate them. For example, the education system and the media strongly emphasize social harmony. But the nature of education beginning at the preschool level and the limited amount of time parents are able to spend with children because of work schedules subordinates parental authority to that of the state and its representatives. Some aspects of filial piety remain salient in contemporary North Korea; for example, children are taught by the state-controlled media to respect their parents. However, filial piety plays a secondary role in relation to loyalty to the state and Kim Il Sung.*
Kim Il Sung is not only a fatherly figure, but was described, in childhood, as a model son. A 1980 article entitled "Kim Il Sung Termed Model for Revering Elders" tells of how he warmed his mother's cold hands with his own breath after she returned from work each day in the winter and gave up the pleasure of playing on a swing because it tore his pants, which his mother then had to mend. "When his parents or elders called him, he arose from his spot at once no matter how much fun he had been having, answered 'yes' and then ran to them, bowed his head and waited, all ears, for what they were going to say." According to Kim, "Communists love their own parents, wives, children, and their fellow comrades, respect the elderly, live frugal lives and always maintain a humble mien." The "dear leader," or Kim Jong Il, is also described as a filial son; when he was five years old, a propagandist wrote, he insisted on personally guarding his father from evil imperialists with a little wooden rifle.*
The personality cult of Kim Il Sung resembles those of Stalin in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s and Nicolae Ceau escu in Romania until his overthrow in 1989. But in North Korea, special attention is paid to the theme of Kim's benevolence and the idea that North Koreans must repay that benevolence with unquestioning loyalty and devotion, recalling old Confucian values of repaying debts of gratitude. Kim's birthday, April 15, is a national holiday. His eightieth birthday, celebrated in 1992, was the occasion for massive national celebrations. The state-run media similarly depicts Kim Jong Il in a benevolent light.*
One enthusiastic Japanese writer related in a 1984 book how the younger Kim, learning of the poor living standards of lighthouse keepers and their families on a remote island, personally arranged for various life-style improvements, including water storage tanks, television sets, special scholarships for the children, and "colorful clothes, coats and caps of the kind that were worn by children in Pyongyang." In the writer's words, "the lighthousemen and their families shed tears of gratitude to the Secretary [Kim Jong Il] for his warmhearted care for them." The writer also described the "bridge of love," built on Kim's order in a remote area in order to allow thirteen children to cross a river on the way to school. He emphasized that the bridge had absolutely "no economic merit."
Juche and Contemporary Social Values
Juche is a significant break with the Confucian past. Developed during the period of revolutionary struggle against Japanese imperialism, juche is the product of Kim Il Sung's thinking. Juche emphasizes the importance of developing the nation's potential using its own resources and reserves of human creativity. Juche legitimizes cultural, economic, and political isolationism by stressing the error of imitating foreign countries or of becoming excessively "international." During the 1970s, Kim Jong Il suggested that juche ideology be renamed Kim Il Sung Chuui (Kim Il Sungism). Kim Il Sungism, epitomizing juche, is described as superior to all other systems of human thought, including (apparently) Marxism. Juche thought is not, at least in principle, xenophobic. Pyongyang has devoted considerable resources to organizing juche study societies around the world and bringing foreign visitors to North Korea for national celebrations — for example, 4,000 persons were invited to attend Kim Il Sung's eightieth birthday celebrations. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
The government opposes "flunkeyism." Kim Jong Il, depicted as an avid student of Korean history in his youth, was said to have made the revolutionary proposal that Kim Yushin, the great general of the Silla Dynasty (668-935), was a "flunkeyist" rather than a national hero because he enlisted the aid of Tang Dynasty (618-907) China in order to defeat Silla's rivals, Kogury and Paekche, and unify the country. Juche's opposition to flunkeyism, moreover, is probably also a reaction to the experience of Japanese colonialism.*
Apart from the North Korean people's almost complete isolation from foreign influences, probably the most significant impact of juche thought and Kim Il Sungism with regard to daily life is the relentless emphasis on self-sacrifice and hard work. The population is told that everything can be accomplished through dedication and the proper revolutionary spirit. This view is evident in the perennial "speed battles" initiated by the leadership to dramatically increase productivity; another example is the bizarre phenomenon called the "drink no soup movement," apparently designed to keep workers on the factory floor rather than going to the lavatory. Moreover, juche provides a "proper" standpoint from which to create or judge art, literature, drama, and music, as well as a philosophical underpinning for the country's educational system.*
Paternalistic Government and a Lack of Freedom in North Korea
Ji-Min Kang wrote in NK News: “When you step back and observe the reality of North Korean society, you’ll see that people go on about their daily lives just like in the rest of the world. They fall in love, they get married, they have children. They respect their parents and become part of their local community.The window through which you can look into North Korea is very small and limited. But remember that the lifestyle of North Koreans isn’t very different from yours. The only things they don’t know about are freedom and human rights. [Source: Ji-Min Kang, NK News, the Guardian North Korea network, April 22, 2014]
Every North Korean carries an identity card and they can't travel outside their town of village without a permit. People are told by the government where they should live, what jobs to take, which subjects to study and often who to marry. North Korean citizens can not speak freely. A sarcastic remark about Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong-un, for example, can land them in a re-education camp, doing hard labor. Bicycles were banned until 1992 to keep people from traveling around. Shortwave radios are unavailable and people lucky enough to get a foreign-made radio have to get it registered with the police, who adjust the tuner so it only picks up Korea Central Broadcasting
North Koreans have important life decision made for them by the government. They are assigned to schools, jobs and housing. Much of their free time is taken by activities organized for them by the government. Sirens go off at 7:00am, noon and midnight, informing people when they should be working, eating and sleeping. All-girl brass bands play martial music to pep people up on their way to work. Martial music and speeches blare form loudspeakers in towns. On "Patriotic Labor" days, held every Friday all North Korean perform menial chores.
Unlike many Westerners, North Koreans have few worries about jobs and security. Bills are paid and decisions are made by the government. One defector told Newsweek, "In North Korea, your job is given to you." In South Korea he said, "I have to get job through free competition, and that could be difficult." "In North Korea, they tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. It took me 10 years get used to South Korea society," one defector told the Los Angeles Times.
The government is has the amazing ability to mobilize huge numbers or people at a short notice to do almost anything. There is no snow removing machinery so in the winter thousands of women with brooms clean ice and snow from roads and sidewalks. At a mass games to celebrate the 55th anniversary if the Korean Worker’s Party, more than a million people marched together in locked step.
Decline of North Korea During the 1990s Famine
Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: Defectors from North Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, “described the North Korea that foreigners never saw as a wasteland, its factories shuttered, its tractors and trucks running on wood-burning steam engines, its once-efficient food-rationing system defunct, whole villages standing empty - mass graves here, bodies lying uncollected there, and scavenging bands of skeletal orphans roving everywhere, gnawing on bark and leaves. Those who made it to China tended to come in tattered clothing, with their feet wrapped in rags; few had much flesh on their bones, and their hair was often blanched by malnutrition. [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]
“It is estimated that starvation has killed between 2 million and 3 million North Koreans in the past decade - a 10th of the population. When foreign governments and international organisations demanded greater transparency in exchange for food, Kim Jong Il warned that 'Imperialist aid is a noose of plunder and subjugation, aimed at robbing 10 and even 100 things for one thing that is given.' Many megatons of food aid did get through and lives were saved. But by all accounts the bulk of it was hijacked by the state to keep the party elite, and especially the military, fed and faithful.
“As more factories fell idle and were stripped down and carted off in their entirety, or as scrap, to be traded for food in China, Kim Jong Il cranked up the only non-military machinery he had left - ideology, propaganda, the engines of Juche. True revolutionaries, the party newspaper explained, 'sacrifice themselves on the glorious road of revolution with a clean revolutionary conscience, because they also firmly believe that the revolutionary cause led by their Leader is most just'. But the passion North Koreans felt for Kim Il Sung, which was genuine, however misplaced and deluded, does not appear to have been transferred to Kim Jong Il, who is remote and secretive and lacks his father's populist touch. He has only once spoken before the general public, at a military parade in 1992, when he was heard to blurt out: 'Glory to the heroic Korean People's Army.'”
Reforms Open Up North Korea to Outside Influences
As a result of the famine the tradition of unquestioning loyalty to the North Korean regime began to erode and foreign influences seeped in. Michael Malice, author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, told Playboy.com. ““Increasingly, there’s outside TV, gossip, word of mouth. These are the healthiest things—a sense of cynicism toward the regime and the law.” According to Playboy.com: After the famine, a black market emerged. First it was farmers’ markets, then scavenging and selling whatever people could get their hands on. In a totalitarian state, when economic conditions deteriorate, bribery and corruption prosper. It’s in this context that Western and South Korean norms have begun to penetrate the isolated populace.” [Source: Luke O'Neil, Playboy.com, April 9, 2018]
Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post: Before his defection in 2004, Kim, “enjoyed the relatively blessed life of the North Korean elite. The son of a ranking military officer, Kim owned a television, a refrigerator and larders brimming with savory white rice. His life improved even more after July 2002, when the North Korean government decreed a landmark series of free-market reforms. As a result of those initiatives, Kim had increasing contact with the world outside North Korea. "From my Chinese and South Korean clients, I heard about just how rich South Korea really was," said Kim,. "I began to understand that I was living in a poor country, and that China and South Korea had riches beyond our imagination. Once I could see through the lie that we were as well-off as any nation, I knew I could not live in North Korea anymore." [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post Foreign Service, December 13, 2004]
“Kim's defection illustrates what many analysts are calling one of the biggest challenges for North Korea. As North Korea enters the 30th month of its experiment with free-market reforms’ launched in 2002 — “including deregulating prices and increasing foreign trade — diplomats, analysts, intelligence sources and recent defectors say that the once airtight lid on information in what is known as the Hermit Kingdom is gradually loosening.
Domestically, however, the economic transition is imposing strains. North Koreans are now expected to buy much of their own food at open markets rather than receiving it from the state, but inflation has risen far more than increases in official wages, according to a report by the U.N. World Food Program. The study, released last month, found that the price of a liter of vegetable oil, for instance, increased threefold from September 2003 to September 2004 to about US$1.50 — an amount roughly equal to a week's salary for many North Korean workers.
"The reforms are creating new groups of vulnerable individuals," said Anthony Branbury, the program's Asia director. "They are hurting many of the people who simply don't have the money to buy food privately while benefiting a minority who were already in the elite and weren't at risk in the past, anyway. Whether the long-term effect of the changes will be a net benefit for North Korea is impossible to tell, but right now, life is much harder for many North Koreans."
To keep control, Kim is moving harshly against perceived threats to his authority, according to analysts. Diplomats who have recently traveled to Pyongyang say the government has added more checkpoints and restrictions on foreign aid groups and overseas missions. More important, South Korean and Japanese government officials say Kim is believed to have recently removed Chang Song Taek, his powerful brother-in-law and a top-ranking member of North Korea's Workers' Party, from his post. Officials say they believe Kim acted against Chang because his private business dealings had grown too lucrative — so lucrative, sources say, that Chang may have begun to establish his own group of high-ranking, loyal followers.
Market Forces on North Korean Society
Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “Not everyone is able to rise up the ranks. Some people become bureaucrats, others are employed by a state-run enterprise. But the majority of the middle class are in some way connected with markets. Since virtually everything from food and clothes to appliances and books is bought and sold there, the North Korean middle class mostly consists of market traders. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 23, 2015]
“The lower classes in North Korea are workers and farmers. “Peasants” might be the more correct term for the latter, since a person working on a collective farm has to surrender their harvest to the state, and only under Kim Jong-un have they been given the right to keep part of their harvests. Workers are not in a better position, with most earning about US$1 or US$2 a month.
“North Korea, being a communist country, has a pension system, although payouts are only about US 50 cents a month. Under Kim Il-sung this was manageable because the elderly also had access to the state’s public distribution system. But now, with the distribution chain largely dysfunctional, old people go to markets to trade for as long as they can. Otherwise they have to rely on their children for survival.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021