North Korea's Caste System

The Trouble With Songbun

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Korean Children's Union in an undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. REUTERS / KCNA

When Choi Seung Chol was born in North Korea in 1990, his parents believed that they already knew how his life would unfold. The government would feed him and provide him with free housing, education, and health care. In exchange, the authorities would tell him what to think and what to say; decide where he would live, study, and work; and most important, determine whether he would be able to join the military or the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. To make all these decisions, the state would refer to Choi's performance at work and school and his songbun—the sociopolitical classification that determines the status of North Korean citizens based largely on their family’s history of perceived loyalty to the government.

The problem for Choi, who fled North Korea in the summer of 2014 and uses a pseudonym to protect the relatives he left behind, was that his family’s records

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