Associated Press journalist Tim Sullivan explains songbun, the caste system of North Korea, and the role it continues to play in North Korean society:
I find songbun really fascinating. Basically, every person has an ideological purity that is traced through their family, and there’s a deep belief in that your purity is linked to your father’s and to your grandfather’s. And what songbun did is basically turn hierarchy on its head with landowners and aristocrats at the very bottom and peasants at the very top.
Songbun has become an ingrained way for the Korean Workers’ Party to become entrenched because while these people’s grandfathers or great-grandfathers may have been peasants, their children became generals or admirals or top party bureaucrats and they simply handed that power down to their sons and grandsons.
At the same time, if you talk to exiles, people who have fled North Korea because of their miserable lives, many of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were landowners or part of the educated class.
So songbun has become this way of keeping things from not really changing there.
But legally, songbun does not exist. North Koreans insist to me up and down it does not exist. However those outside the country who could speak openly, say it still exists.
And so in North Korea, when you apply for a job, you still list your songbun. You list your father’s job, your grandfather’s job and your great-grandfather’s job, which tells them exactly who you are.
In absolute irony, Ko Young-hee, the mother of present leader Kim Jong-un, was born in Osaka, Japan, which would make her part of songbun’s “hostile class” because of her Korean-Japanese heritage. Furthermore, her grandfather worked in a sewing factory for the Imperial Japanese Army.
There were three attempts made to idolize Ko. The building of a cult of personality around Ko encounters the problem of her bad songbun, as making her identity public would undermine the Kim dynasty’s pure bloodline. Ko’s real name or other personal details have not been publicly revealed (her origins could be figured out, as she worked with Mansudae Art Troupe in Pyongyang). The complications of Ko’s songbun were such that after Kim Jong-il’s death, her personal information, including name, became state secrets.