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 were dismal. The state had classified Choi’s grandfather as a supporter of the Japanese during World War II, Choi told an employee of Human Rights Watch in Seoul in June 2015, and by the time he was born, that designation had already shaped his parents' fate: in the late 1960s, when his father was a child, the government forced him and his family to move to a village in a mountainous area in the country's east. Only after several decades of backbreaking agricultural work did the government allow Choi's father to move to a large coastal city.

What did this mean for the young Choi? Even if he excelled in his studies and showed deep loyalty to the government, his potential was limited. The best he could hope for was to go to a university in the second-tier city where he was born, get an administrative job there, and live near his family. He would never become a ruling party official or live in Pyongyang, the capital, where elite families with the highest songbun reside and have access to the best

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