Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System
By Robert Collins
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012, 119 pp
Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State
By Ken Gause
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012, 182 pp
The Hidden Gulag. 2nd ed., The Lives and Voices of “Those Who Are Sent to the Mountains”
By David Hawk
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012, 229 pp
The Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea produces valuable research that sheds light on life in the “hermit kingdom.” These three recent reports reveal North Korea’s extraordinary system of repression. Collins describes the institution of songbun, under which each North Korean citizen is assigned “a heredity-based class and socio-political rank over which the individual exercises no control but which determines all aspects of his or her life.” Fifty-one subcategories are clustered into three classes, defined by their level of commitment to the regime: core, wavering, and hostile. Access to jobs, housing, medical care, and even marriage depends on one’s class status. Members of the lower classes are not allowed to live in relatively prosperous cities, such as Pyongyang. The regime directs foreign aid to the “core” group, while the lower groups—perhaps up to 80 percent of the population—suffer from famine and a high risk of political imprisonment.
In his revealing report, Gause explores the North Korean security bureaucracy, which is remarkable even among totalitarian states for the tight net it throws over the citizenry. Neighborhood watches make sure that even in private, no one grumbles about the regime, listens to foreign radio broadcasts, watches smuggled South Korean videos, or entertains unauthorized visitors. At a higher level, three main agencies—the State Security Department, the Ministry of People’s Security, and the Military Security Command—enforce an official system of guilt by association, under which persons are sent to prison camps if they are within three generations of a family member accused of “wrong-doing, wrong-knowledge, wrong-association, or wrong-class-background.” Each agency combines the functions of investigation, prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment, enforcing rules that are often unpublished.
Hawk has gathered a great deal of new information about the North Korean gulag, based on interviews with some 60 members of the growing North Korean refugee community in South Korea. He explains that there are differences among the several types of detention facilities, although most of them employ the technique of forced labor until death. He describes the special punishments meted out to refugees who were denied asylum in China and forcibly returned to North Korea. Especially tragic are the stories of female asylum seekers who were coerced into sexual relationships in China but then denied asylum and sent back to North Korea, where they were forced to have abortions or had their children killed at birth, owing to the Pyongyang regime’s insistence on maintaining “racial purity.”
Some believe that North Korea’s control system is eroding as small-scale private markets grow, corruption spreads, and smugglers bring in more cell phones, radios, dvds, and usb drives from China. But these reports show that for now, the regime’s grip on the population remains firm.