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The Scoop
June 6, 2012

We need to talk about Songbun, North Korea’s hidden social caste system

Emily Dyer

Greater focus has recently been bought upon the home of the world’s worst human rights abuses, North Korea, for its vast system of slave labour camps – used as dustbins of society into which anyone whom they suspect to be disloyal are flung. Here, thousands of people face starvation, torture, slave labour and daily public executions.

However, the institutional mechanisms behind these atrocities have so far been largely ignored – most importantly the complex social classification system into which each North Korean is born, which determines the mix of surveillance, punishments or privileges each person is entitled to. This hidden institution facilitates the widespread and systemic human rights abuses throughout North Korea.

Today the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) lauched a new study – ‘Marked for life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System’ – which places the North Korean regime’s most powerful means of social control at the heart of the problem.

The songbun system divides the North Korean people into 51 categories of loyalty and trustworthiness to North Korean state and the Kim family. These categories then fall under one of three broad castes: the core, wavering, and hostile.

When you see footage of North Korea, it is almost always of people living in Pyongyang. This is because the regime has categorised this estimated 28% of the population as the ‘core’ of North Korea; the presentable face of the country. These people have been born into an elite of the unlucky; rewarded with certain ‘privileges’ for having the most favourable family backgrounds and occupations. This ‘core’ makes up an estimated 28% of the population. For the rest, however, largely living outside the capital city, a life of hard labour, discrimination, famine and torture awaits.

The system is the root cause of the terrible human rights abuses forced upon the majority of North Koreans. For example, the size of the nutritional categories in the Great famine in the 1990s matches that of the three castes, indicating that the regime was feeding people through the public distribution system based on songbun classifications.

The songbun system has succeeded in maintaining the regime’s control of its people, and therefore its survival, for 60 years. U.N. and General Assembly resolutions and reports have so far failed to address how the songbun system has impacted upon human rights in North Korea.

Read more about how the songbun system violates human rights law in HRNK’s report.


Emily Dyer

About Emily Dyer

Emily joined the Henry Jackson Society as a researcher in January 2012. She is currently researching women’s rights in Egypt having recently co-authored Al-Qaeda in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorism Offenses. Emily previously worked as a Higher Executive Officer for the Preventing Extremism Unit at the Department for Education, where she wrote several papers on extremism within educational settings. Beforehand she was based at the Policy Exchange think tank. Emily has written for a broad range of publications including The Observer, The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, City AM, The Atlantic, CTC Sentinel and Standpoint magazine, largely on women’s rights in the Middle East, extremism, and human rights. Emily studied International Relations from the University of Birmingham, where she produced a First class dissertation on Islamic feminism in Iran, and has travelled widely within Syria and Turkey.

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