Equal discrimination against all in North Korea’s vile caste system.
The Cold War ended more than two decades ago. The Soviet Union disintegrated less than 75 years after its tumultuous birth. China expunged its Maoist experiment in about half that time. Pol Pot’s Cambodian utopia didn’t last even four years.
However, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea lives on, 64 years after its creation under the protective arms of the Soviet Red Army. The DPRK has fused communism with monarchy, twice elevating to godlike status a son of the previous dictator. North Korea’s obituary has oft been written, but the Kim dynasty staggers on, seemingly unaffected by mass starvation, pervasive poverty, extraordinary repression, and social collapse.
It is hard to imagine a starker comparison than between the North and the Republic of Korea, a prosperous and democratic state. Yet even more dramatic may be the contrast between what the DPRK is and what it was supposed to be.
North Korean founder Kim Il-sung was an anti-Japanese guerrilla. Give him his due: he fought against a system of foreign repression. Japan had turned the once independent kingdom into a colony. Tokyo’s brutal suppression of Koreans’ identity rankles still, poisoning the relationship between two modern nations that should be cooperating to promote a democratic, market-oriented order in East Asia.
Kim succeeded, though only because the U.S., aided by Great Britain, Australia, and other allied states, defeated Japan in World War II. Kim ended up in charge of his own state because the Soviet Union needed a pliable front man when tasked with occupying the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. He was left in power when Moscow withdrew its troops and created an independent communist state to match the ROK, established with American support in the south.
Kim theoretically fought to overthrow oppressors who had put their own interests before that of the Korean people. The Japanese-imposed order had elevated to positions of influence and wealth those willing to serve Tokyo. Kim pulled them all down.
And replaced them with representatives of a new, even more arbitrary and harsh system.
A land of equality the DPRK did not become. Rather, Kim established songbun, a system of social classification that places people in political castes almost as permanent as the infamous Indian birth categories ranging from untouchable to Brahmin. The result was permanent privilege for Kim and his allies and permanent privation for many others. Robert Collins, a former Defense Department employee who has lived in South Korea, explores the vagaries of this awful system in “Marked for Life: Songbun North Korea’s Social Classification System,” recently released by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
There may be no more awe-inspiring system of totalitarianism on earth today than that in the DPRK. Eritrea and some of the Central Asian republics aspire to such status but fall short. Burma at its worst remained largely a military dictatorship. One has to look back to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao Zedong’s China, Enver Hoxha’s Albania, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia for equivalents, and all of those have been gone for years, even decades.
Andrew Natsios, a former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, introduces the Collins report, noting that “North Korean totalitarianism is maintained through several powerful means of social control, the most elaborate and intrusive of which is the songbun classification system.” There are an incredible 51 different categories of loyalty into which North Koreans are divided. They are ranked, explains Natsios, in terms of “trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state.”
Only a communist bureaucrat could be expected to make the fine distinctions necessary to sort people into 51 different boxes. All that the rest of us need to know are the three broader groupings, which determine general status: Core, wavering, and hostile. In 1958 Kim Il-sung, who had gradually acquired dictatorial power despite starting a disastrous war just eight years before, estimated that about 25 percent of North Koreans fell into the first category, 55 percent into the second, and 20 percent into the third. Another, oft-cited set of figures is 28 percent, 45 percent, and 27 percent, respectively. Other estimates take the “hostile” class up to 40 percent.
India’s caste system is bad, but social prejudice does not automatically mean government disability. Pyongyang’s caste system is political. Since government controls every aspect of life, the discrimination becomes pervasive and inescapable. Observes Collins: “Focused on origin of birth, this party-directed ‘caste system’ is the root cause of discrimination and humanitarian abuses. The grim reality of North Korea is that this system creates a form of slave labor for a third of North Korea’s population of 23 million citizens and loyalty-bound servants out of the remainder.”
The consequences are deadly. Natsios points out that during the murderous famine of the late 1990s one Western survey figured that 32 percent of North Korean children were free of malnutrition, 62 percent suffered moderate malnutrition, and 16 percent endured severe malnutrition. Those figures roughly correspond to past estimates of the population’s songbun ranking, and official rations are known to be based on political status.
Songbun is no ad hoc matter, something determined by happenstance. Collins cites a formal manual on determining people’s classification published by the Ministry of Public Security, which begins a file on every citizen at age 17. In the North, songbun is a critical part of communism. Explained the Workers’ Daily newspaper: “We do not hide our class-consciousness just like we do not hide our party-consciousness. Socialist human rights are not supra-class human rights that grant freedom and rights to hostile elements who oppose socialism and to impure elements who violate the interests of the People.” Human rights for me but not thee is the essence of songbun, and North Korean communism.
Virtually all of the refugees interviewed by Collins were aware of the system. Younger people believed it to be of decreasing importance, but their elders — in their 30s and beyond — thought otherwise. Explained Collins: “Those who experienced discrimination over a period of time, particularly if that discrimination affects one’s education, employment and one’s dependents, will be more aware of the harm songbun has caused in their lives.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online