North Korea maintains a class system of rewarding citizens that is based on allegiance to the country’s hardline regime and is used to determine the allocation of food, according to a new study that has prompted calls for international pressure to end the discrimination.
The “songbun” system identifies three main classes of North Korean society—core, wavering, and hostile—and uses these labels to selectively dole out privilege and opportunity, the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) said in a report released Wednesday.
This includes the distribution of food aid, the report said, indicating that the system could have been a key factor in the survival or death of North Koreans during a famine in the mid-1990s that resulted in as many as 3.5 million deaths.
“We have some evidence that the songbun system determined ration levels in the public distribution system which fed the country from the founding of the North Korean state until the deterioration of the system during the famine and its ultimate collapse,” HRNK said.
“In the context of the famine, songbun may have determined who lived and who died, who ate well and who starved, and whose children suffered permanent physical (through stunting) and intellec¬tual damage (prolonged acute malnutri¬tion lowers IQ levels) from acute severe malnutrition.”
Correlation with nutrition
While the songbun system is not officially a North Korean policy, class stratification has been referred to a number of times since the country was “liberated” by communist forces six decades ago.
In 1958, founding father of North Korea Kim Il Sung delivered a speech in which he reported that the “core,” or devoted, class represented 25 percent of the population, while the percentage of the population considered “wavering” and “hostile” to the regime represented 55 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
Those numbers largely correspond with findings from a 1998 nationwide survey conducted by the World Food Program, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the European Union on the nutritional condition of North Korean children.
Taken about one year after what was widely considered to be the worst period of the famine, the study showed that 32 percent of children exhibited no evidence of malnutrition, while 62 percent suffered from moderate malnutrition, and 16 percent suffered from severe acute malnutrition, with an error rate of 5 percent.
“While the survey had its limitations because of restrictions placed on the effort by the North Korean state, it is noteworthy that the size of the three social classes is about the same as the size of the nutritional categories,” the report said.
“If the regime was feeding people through the public distribution system (PDS) based on their songbun classification, it would be reflect¬ed in the nutritional data; and the data does show considerable coincidence.”
Andrew Natsios, a scholar at Georgetown University in Washington who formerly served as the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), called the PDS a “tool of control” based on the songbun system.
He said that the PDS, which has in the past been used by international donors to distribute food to the North Korean public, determines rations based on the importance of a citizen’s job to the survival of the state.
“My advice would be that no food [aid] should go through the PDS, period. We need to find different ways of distributing food,” he said.
“This report needs to inform all food distributions henceforth … and if the North Koreans won’t agree to it, then we just don’t distribute the food.”
‘Marked for life’
The report, titled “Marked for Life,” was compiled from interviews with 75 North Korean defectors, the most recent in 2011.
The study’s author, Robert Collins, of the U.S. Department of Defense, also cited a 1993 manual written by the North Korean Ministry of Public Security that informs officials on how to investigate a citizen’s sociopolitical background.
A person’s classification is assigned at birth, according to how one’s family members have been viewed by the regime since the nation’s founding in 1948, and the government maintains a file on every citizen from the age of 17.
While a person’s file is updated every two years, an upgrade in status is rare, the study said. North Koreans can easily be downgraded based on political or criminal offenses and their families are generally considered guilty by association.
Songbun’s three classes are further subdivided into 51 classes of loyalty to the Kim family.
The system has its origins in the social restructuring enforced by the country’s founders, who sought to elevate peasants at the expense of landlords.
During the 1950-53 Korean War, those who fought against the Japanese colonialists and the U.S. received “core” status, while those who collaborated with the enemy or whose family members left North Korea were branded “hostile.”
In addition to determining how to allow access to food, the study said, classification through songbun also has a bearing on a person’s education, employment, health care, and even whom one can marry.
Only around one-quarter of North Korea’s 24 million inhabitants are considered part of the core class and dominate the country’s military and ruling Worker’s Party. They are granted the right to live in the relatively prosperous capital Pyongyang, and are given access to the best education and jobs.
Those in the hostile class live mostly in remote parts of the country’s impoverished northeastern provinces and work hard labor on farms and in mines. They are the class that has suffered the most from failed state policies and during the famine of the 1990s.
And while the emergence of informal markets since the late 1990s has challenged state control, it is clear that songbun still exists and perpetuates discrimination amongst the lowest ranks of North Korean society, the report said.
It called on members of the international community to put pressure on the North Korean regime to abandon songbun, but acknowledged that the country’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, is unlikely to change the policy.
“The songbun policy is a prime enabler of regime security and a decisive provider of critical labor inputs, and thus its reform may endanger the regime’s survival,” it said.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.