There is a strange phenomenon that lingers over every North Korean. For the past five decades, an arbitrary determination decides where they will live, what hospitals they will go to if they are sick, if they can go to college, if they can marry and even if they will receive a full serving of food. […]
There is a strange phenomenon that lingers over every North Korean. For the past five decades, an arbitrary determination decides where they will live, what hospitals they will go to if they are sick, if they can go to college, if they can marry and even if they will receive a full serving of food. This de facto caste system has nothing to do with a person’s genealogy or socioeconomic standing or job; officially, it doesn’t exist for all. But for the 23 million North Koreans, it’s an everyday fact of life.
The United Nations (U.N.) is currently seeking the cooperation of North Korea in regard to allegations of widespread human rights abuses. On March 21, the U.N. Human Rights Council launched a one-year inquiry to document violations at the nation’s labor camps which allegedly amount to crimes against humanity.
Michael Kirby, a former justice of the High Court of Australia, was named to lead a three-person team — which also will include Sonja Biserko, a founder of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, and Marzuki Darusman, the U.N.’s current special rapporteur on North Korea — that will look into the charges of torture, food deprivation and labor camps thought to hold more than 200,000 people. Kirby has indicated that he has received hundreds of emails from human rights groups and representatives alleging North Korean abuse since his appointment.
“If they come forward — good. If they don’t come forward, well, we will just get on with our job and do it within the materials and access we have. That’s just common sense,” Kirby said.
North Korea denies the existence of the labor camps and is not expected to cooperate with the investigation, which it denounced in a U.N. Human Rights Council debate. Kirby and his team will receive testimony from North Koreans living in South Korea, Thailand and Japan.
“When the commission is up and running after the first of July 2013, then we will start working through our methodology to consult and see as many as possible,” Kirby continued.
After weeks of threats of a return to war, the arrest and imprisonment of an American tour guide and the possible revival of the North Korean nuclear program, the West has never had more reasons than now to pay attention to the so-called Hermit Kingdom.
The West has a limited view of North Korea. Few outsiders are permitted beyond North Korea’s borders, and the nation’s extreme isolationist tendencies mean that little viable intelligence leaves North Korea.
However, through the testimony of defectors and the reporting of journalists, it is possible to paint a picture of the realities of being North Korean and to explain why the whole world should be concerned.
Being North Korean
First off, the name “North Korea” is a misnomer, as both the North Korean and South Korean governments claim to be the sole legal authority for the entire Korean Peninsula. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was formed after the Japanese empire annexed the Korean Empire in 1910 and ceded it after Allied forces occupied Japan at the end of World War II. It was from the Korean Empire that the moniker “Hermit Kingdom” came, as the empire — similar to feudal Japan — embraced Westernization only in recent centuries and distrusted foreigners.
As with Germany, Korea was divided into zones of influence at the end of World War II. The southern half was given to the United States, and the northern half was given to the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In 1948, U.N.-supervised elections lead to the installation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the Soviet-held north, and the Republic of Korea in the American-held south. As the elections created two conflicting governments — both claiming U.N. legitimacy — an all-out fight for sovereignty broke out, which led to the Korean War.
Eventually, an armistice was reached in 1953, with neither side gaining nor losing ground. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) was set up between the two halves, and both sides technically remain at war to this day, as no peace treaty was ever signed. Both governments are currently represented as full members of the United Nations.
Another misconception is to think of North Korea as communist. Soviet-style communism was rejected in North Korea in 1972, and all mention of “communism” was dropped from the North Korean constitution in 2009.
Using the teachings of Marxism-Leninism, and in direct response to the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from North Korea as a direct benefactor (although Russia remains one of North Korea’s chief allies to this day), North Korean President Kim Il-sung introduced the concept of “Juche” — its meaning is akin to self-reliance — as the nation’s guiding principle. Thought to be North Korea’s take on Stalinism, the DPRK sees Juche as being influenced by Maoism — particularly, the theory of the Mass Line, or the idea that it is the government’s responsibility to tell the public the correct way to think.
Under Juche, North Korean society is split into three classes: peasant, worker and the samuwon (intellectuals and professionals). Unlike communism, where the peasant and worker classes alone would be valued, Juche — in theory — treats these three classes equally as one united “people.” Kim Il-sung envisioned that by recognizing all North Koreans as one and elevating all equally, it would spur economic growth and promote the strength of the Democratic People’s Republic.
Many are not buying this. According to many in the international community, North Korea’s current policies amount to institutional racism — a “cleanest race” policy that permits North Korea to take a hard stance against anyone different.
North Korea inherited Japan’s racism while Japan occupied the Korean peninsula and made that racism a core principle of their philosophy, according to Brian R. Myers, whose book “The Cleanest Race” was widely acclaimed by international academics. Myers argues that North Korea’s posturing, its handling of internal tensions by maintaining virulent anti-Americanism and its inflated self-image represent not a small nation trying to survive among giants, but a fascist, self-destructive nation in the mold of Imperial Japan — a true threat, given access to enough resources, to the whole of the world.
As argued by Myers, according to Stalinist fiction, the Communist Party is posed as an educating father, while “[…] the DPRK’s propaganda is notably averse to scenes of intellectual discipline. Because Koreans are born pure and selfless, they can and should heed their instincts. Often they are shown breaking out of intellectual constraints in a mad spree of violence against the foreign or land-owning enemy. Cadres are expected to nurture, not teach, and bookworms are negative characters. In short: where Stalinism put the intellect over the instincts, North Korean culture does the opposite.”
Myers points out that through certain events, such as the forced abortions of North Korean women pregnant by ethnic Chinese men and the attempted lynching of Black Cuban diplomats — as well as the regular propaganda fed to the North Koreans about the grace of “Dear Leader” and the glory of fighting and dying for the motherland — the DPRK is creating an “us versus them” mentality that would be toxic to anything but more indoctrination.
This is made clear by the fact that, until the office was abolished in 2013, the president of the DPRK was Kim Il-sung, who had been dead since 1994 (technically, the office was abolished with the ratification of the 1999 constitution, but the appellation “Eternal President of the Republic” was granted to him). However, since North Korea survives on foreign aid and trade with China and Russia, such posturing is hypocritical at best.
Songbun and what it means to be North Korean
For the average North Korean, songbun is the everyday reminder of how the government influences their lives. While the notion of wealth in modern North Korea is forcing a democratic fraying of songbun, the power of caste remains potent.
Songbun was created by Kim Il-sung to reward party loyalists and to isolate and inconvenience potential enemies. Songbun forced Stalinist class distinctions into a permanent hierarchy. The aristocracy and landlords were placed at the bottom, the peasants were placed higher, and at the very top were Kim’s loyalists. Eventually, the lower caste became the new farmers and miners — forced to work in North Korea’s barren, rocky landscape. The higher caste filled the bureaucracies and became the nation’s new power-brokers. Children grew up to follow their parents.
“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 wrote an exhaustive songbun study released last year by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. While songbun technically is not rigid and allows for caste migration, most North Koreans’ standing reflect their ancestors’ standing in the late 50s and early 60s. The North Korean ruling class are officially deemed “peasants.”
Few North Koreans are actually aware of the details of their songbun classification; most only learn of it when they come in contact with the government for housing shifts, employment, education and food rations. Ultimately, songbun represents a “glass ceiling” that many North Koreans come up against unknowingly. Many that are aware of songbun join the Worker’s Party to start the official process of caste migration. This strengthens the ruling party and solidifies control.
“The ‘insidious’ nature of this system surfaces when decisions are made based on the Songbun level assigned to each person after this process in completed. [Author of “Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System” Robert] Collins provided several lucid examples. His first was that of a pregnant mother in a lower Songbun class who is suffering from malnutrition. For that mother, if she is denied access to sufficient amounts of nourishment both she and her unborn child will suffer from malnutrition. Collins added that North Koreans begin to understand this when there is denial of opportunity for their children. As parents they would be overcome with ‘regret’ and would ‘feel as if [they] are a failure.’ He shared another story of a North Korean family where their daughter had aspired to be a teacher and was fully capable of doing so, but as punishment for something her grandfather did, she was assigned to construction work.”
It has been reported that songbun is being used as a weapon by the DPRK. Food distribution from international relief are restricted in the countryside; many go hungry, and shipments to the three northeasternmost provinces were completely cut off during the famines of the mid-1990s. It has been argued that the DPRK uses food rationing as a means of ethnic cleansing of unwanted ethnic groups.
“My family was in the lowest of the lowest level,” said one North Korean former coal miner who fled to South Korea in 2006. “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.”
Despite all of this, a small consumer class is forming in North Korea. With a per capita gross domestic product of $1,800, the elite still control the wealth of North Korea, but it is now possible for a low-songbun individual to buy his way into a good job, educational opportunities or better housing.
Government-approved informal markets are emerging, and while the government occasionally cracks down on them, they offer North Koreans a chance for life outside DPRK control. Ultimately, if there is hope for North Koreans, it is in the idea that one day, they will get to choose how to live their own lives.
“There’s one place where songbun doesn’t matter, and that’s in business,” said a defected North Korean soldier 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.”