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 is called songbun. And officially, it does not exist at all.
Today it is also quietly fraying, weakened by the growing importance of something that barely existed until recently in socialist North Korea: wealth.
“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. “Songbun means nothing to people who want to make money.”
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.