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, 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 North 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.