A caste system called songbun, effectively translating as “background“, has shadowed the life of every North Korean.
Bob Collins, who wove together smuggled documents, interviews with former North Korean security officials and discussions with an array of ordinary North Koreans,wrote an exhaustive songbun study released this year by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. 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.
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.
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.
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.