Equal discrimination against all in North Korea’s vile caste system.
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If the system has waned in recent years, it is because the great famine weakened the North Korean state and government food distribution, encouraging the rise of corruption and bribery. As a result, “burgeoning markets, born of necessity with the state’s inability to feed its people, have indeed provided new opportunities and individuals in most categories of songbun have been able to earn some money through their own initiative.” The system remains, but catastrophe has made it possible for people to escape some of songbun’s effects. Only in North Korea could famine generate a form of equal opportunity!
The system is unlikely to change without a fundamental transformation of the DPRK political system. Poverty and hunger persist, which make it important for the regime to continue to try to maintain control over its people. Indeed, in recent years the late dictator Kim Jong-il cracked down on markets which had developed. The 2009 currency “reform,” thought to be a botched policy initiative by some, may have been consciously used to confiscate much of the wealth accumulated by private traders, reportedly sparking unusual public protests.
The regime has even sought to bring songbun into the computer age by digitizing personal information. Indeed, notes Collins, “It is not surprising that the security police labeled the computer data management system designed to make human rights violations more systematic, ‘Faithful Servant 2.0.’”
An uncertain power transition further reinforces songbun’s importance. Kim Jong-un, or the “Cute Leader” as he is informally known, neither wields his father’s power nor rules alone, if he rules at all. He and his colleagues are attempting to traverse uncertain and dangerous terrain, which makes it important that they preserve support from regime loyalists. However, notes Collins: “Changes in the songbun policy would undoubtedly be viewed as a direct threat to North Korea’s elite who benefit most from the system.” Even if a would-be Gorbachev is hiding in Pyongyang’s top leadership today, his room for maneuver is highly constricted.
The basic purpose of songbun is simple, notes Collins: the system “identifies, assesses, categorizes, and politically stratifies each North Korean resident as a political asset or liability to the socialist revolution and the regime in general and to the ruling Kim family specifically.” Other governments focus on religion, ethnicity, or race. In the DPRK loyalty to the communist monarchs is what matters.
Songbun combines an analysis of one’s origins — back through grandparents and extending to cousins — with an assessment of one’s behavior. The latter, at least, allow some change based on one’s service to the regime.
The “haeksim” or core class is critical to the regime’s survival. This 25 percent enjoys all of the privileges available in a bankrupt totalitarian state. Notes Collins: “The core class, with its high political reliability rating, is given priority in every known social welfare and support category, whether employment, education, housing, medical treatment, or food and the provision of life’s necessities.” No wimpy blather about equal opportunity.
Next is the “dongyo” or wavering class, which incorporates the bulk of the population, 55 percent in Kim Il-sung’s estimation. These are people who are not trusted by the regime but, writes Collins, “who can serve the regime well through proper economic and political performance, particularly if they demonstrate loyalty to the party and its leaders.” Indoctrination is viewed as a key tool for maintaining this group’s utility.
Finally, a fifth of the population falls into the “choktae” or hostile class. These “impure elements” or “anti-party and anti-revolutionary forces” are believed to threaten the regime. As “class enemies” they face discrimination in every aspect of life. Their opportunity to improve their status is extremely limited.
It is not just the idea of such a system that is horrid. Imagine what it does to the spirit of those who can never escape its confines. Writes Collins: “Essentially a rigid caste system, songbun leaves most North Koreans with little-to-no hope for reward for personal initiative and very little room for personal choice.”
While a life time of faithful service to the putative gods in Pyongyang might move one up the songbun ladder a bit, the simplest ideological error can result in a terrifying plunge. And a stumble does not just ruin one’s career. It destroys the life of one’s extended family. Explains Collins: “Conviction of the political crime — particularly slander or action against the Kim regime — will not only cause one’s songbun level to fall to rock bottom, but so will that of one’s family members up to third-degree relatives, which will last for generations.”
Political loyalty is treated as an immutable genetic characteristic. No doubt, one advantage of songbun so interpreted is that it discourages resistance to the regime, since the price of disobedience is so high. But the practice also reflects a bizarrely atavistic notion that political loyalty is born, not made. Class is essentially viewed as part of one’s DNA, and can be worked out only over generations.
As such, songbun reflects an underlying paranoia that demonstrates the truth of Lord Acton’s famous axiom, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lots of us have personality quirks and character flaws, but most of us can do only limited harm as a result. Give people absolute political control and the result is horror.
In 1950 Kim Il-sung ordered the invasion of South Korea, triggering a humanitarian catastrophe that killed millions. His attempt to conquer the ROK failed, but he survived the debacle. However, staying in power required ousting, and in many cases executing, communist loyalists who happened to belong to different factions — friendly to China or the Soviet Union, or from the peninsula’s south. The songbun system allowed him to go on and categorize the entire population.
Among Kim’s most surprising (and probably surprised) victims were repatriated prisoners-of-war, Kim’s literal foot soldiers in his war of conquest. Observers Collins: “Initially the regime manipulated their image, treating them as heroes, but afterwards about 70% were suspected of being spies for the South. Once considered war heroes, these individuals underwent severe scrutiny and were often labeled politically unreliable. People who had emerged as leaders of prisoners in the United Nations Command POW camps were, after they returned to North Korea, often charged with political crimes and executed.”
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.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?