It is often overlooked how much North Korea has changed over the past 20 years.
Its Stalinist and militaristic facade is carefully maintained by the state, but
in the new circumstances it is increasingly misleading. Behind this official
veneer of militant posters and goose-stepping soldiers, the society itself has
In a nutshell, the past two decades were the time when the state was steadily
retreating from the private life, and also was losing its ability (perhaps also
its will) to control the daily activities of its subjects as well as how they
made a living. One of many significant changes has been the steady decline in
the significance attached to family background (known as songbun in
North Korean parlance) - once the single most important factor
that determined the life of a North Korean.
Family background did matter in other communist countries as well, but to a
much lesser extent. For example, in the Soviet Union immediately after the 1917
communist revolution, scions of aristocrats, descendants of priests, and
merchants faced many kinds of discrimination. It was more difficult for them to
enter a college or to be promoted, and they were more likely to be arrested for
alleged political crimes. However, this discrimination had disappeared by the
late 1940s, so in the days of my youth, in the 1970s and 1980s, it had become
quite normal in the USSR to boast about real or alleged aristocratic family
North Korea is very different. In 1957, the authorities launched a large-scale
and ambitious investigation of the family backgrounds of virtually all North
Korean citizens. As a result of this and subsequent investigations, by the
mid-1960s the entire population was divided into a number of hereditary groups,
somewhat akin to the estates of medieval Europe. Career chances and life
prospects of every North Korean were determined, to a very large extent, by his
membership in one of these strictly defined groups.
The major criteria of classification were quite straightforward: the songbun
(origin) of the North Korean was largely defined by what his or her direct male
ancestors did in the 1930s and 1940s.
The official songbun structure was quite elaborate and changed over
time. However, at the first approximation, there have been three groups in
North Korea, usually known as "core", "wavering" and "hostile" classes. Every
single North Korean had to belong to one of these groups.
The "hostile class" included people whose ancestors in or around 1945 were
engaged in activities that were not to the regime's liking. Among others, this
group included descendants of clerks in the Japanese colonial administration,
Christian activists, female shamans, entrepreneurs, and defectors to the South.
Members of the hostile class faced the greatest number of restrictions: They
could not live in Pyongyang or other major cities and they could not be
admitted to good colleges or universities. People whose songbun was
exceptionally bad would not even be drafted into the military.
Members of the "core class" included those whose direct male ancestors
contributed toward the foundation and strengthening of the Kim family regime.
They were descendants of anti-Japanese guerrillas, heroes of the Korean War, or
party bureaucrats. For all practical purposes, over the past half-century, only
these people could be promoted to key positions in the North Korean state and
party bureaucracy. They constituted the hereditary elite.
In the days of Kim Il-sung's rule, from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, songbun
was of paramount significance. It determined where people lived and worked and
even what they ate. Most marriages were also concluded between people of the
same or similar songbun.
It was also important that the songbun was, in essence, unchallengeable.
It was inherited from one's father and was then bestowed on one's children. The
mother's songbun did not matter. I know a couple where the husband's songbun
was bad (he was a "landowner's grandson"), but the wife had the best songbun
imaginable, being a descendant of a family that once was involved with the
anti-Japanese guerrillas of Kim Il-sung. Frankly, such a marriage was rare and
unequal - in most cases women of such standing would be as reluctant to marry a
man of low origin as, say, a European noble lady from the 17th century.
However, in this particular case the marriage did take place, much against the
resistance of the girl's parents.
In due time, though, the spouses discovered that the wife's songbun did
not really matter. Their daughter, a promising athlete, could not be sent for
further training, since her songbun was bad: the great-granddaughter of
a minor landlord could not compete on the national level and, for that matter,
could be accepted only to a junior college.
In Kim Il-sung's era - that is, before 1994 - the state was in near-complete
control of an individual's life. The only way to achieve high status and
affluence was to climb the official bureaucratic ladder. As a North Korean
friend put it in the late 1980s: "I hate officials, but I want to become an
official, because in our country, only officials can live well." Indeed, in Kim
Il-sung's North Korea all material goods were distributed by the state and
almost all income was derived from work in state industry or the state
But things started to change dramatically in the early 1990s. The state sector,
suddenly deprived of Soviet subsidies, collapsed. North Koreans suddenly
discovered that food rations were no longer forthcoming and their official
monthly salary would only buy 1 or 2 kilograms of rice. Predictably, mass
starvation followed, killing at least a half-million people.
To survive, the North Korean people literally rediscovered capitalism.
Estimates vary, but the consensus is that over the past 10-15 years, the
average North Korean family has come to draw most of its income from what can
be described as black-market activities. Actually the so-called black market is
not particularly black, since the government - in spite of occasional
crackdowns - has tacitly tolerated its existence since the mid-1990s. Nowadays
North Koreans work on individual fields on steep mountain slopes, they
establish private workshops to produce garments and assorted consumer goods,
and they smuggle and trade.
The new and increasingly dominant unofficial economy is in essence capitalist.
As such, it rewards those who are sufficiently industrious, greedy,
intelligent, ruthless and disciplined - and in some cases, it rewards them
handsomely. Social inequality is growing and many a successful merchant or
workshop owner lives better than a middle-ranking bureaucrat. A successful
entrepreneur might have all trappings of luxury - including, say, a Chinese
motorbike or a refrigerator, which in North Korea can be seen as roughly
equivalent to a Lexus and a yacht.
The success in the emerging new economy is usually unrelated to one's songbun.
In fact, sometimes it seems that people with bad songbun tend to be more
successful nowadays - perhaps because back in the 1990s they had no
expectations of the state and were the first to jump into the murky waters of
the emerging North Korean market economy.
Of late, the previously attractive career avenues have lost much of their
allure. For example, in the past, many North Koreans were willing to do their
long and tedious military service, which lasted some seven to 10 years. This
popularity was easy to explain: For a person with average songbun, this
would be the only way to get into the bottom tiers of the bureaucracy. As a
North Korean told it, recalling the time of her youth, the 1970s: "The only way
to become somebody was to go into the military, join the Korean Workers Party
while on the active service, and then come back to become an official."
Recently, however, military service has lost much of its popularity. Few people
would be willing spend 10 years in a squalid barracks so as eventually to
become a minor official in the city administration. Such a job is still
attractive, to be sure, but it seems preferable to become a smuggler or a
merchant, whose income far exceeds that of a petty bureaucrat.
Still, on the very top, songbun is important, since the key
administrative positions are held by those with good songbun, and a mid-
or high-level official can make a nice income by milking the private economy.
Hence people with good songbun still often think about capitalizing on
the real or alleged contribution of their ancestors to the establishment of the
North Korean regime. However, for a majority the emergence of markets opened a
new, faster and more attractive (but also more risky) avenue of social
North Korean society has become defined by one's relationship to money, not by
one's relationship to the bureaucracy or one's inherited caste status. Money
talks, and for better or worse, in North Korea, money talks ever louder. As a
female refugee in her early 40s put it recently: "Under Kim Il-sung, songbun
was very important, it decided everything. Under Kim Jong-il, things are
different - your family background still matters, but money nowadays is more
important than social background."
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.
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