Are you special, basic or complex? Behind North Korea’s caste system
‘Songbun’ separates citizens according to ancestral and social standings – or whether they’ve had their photograph taken with the great leader. NK News wonders how will it coexist with Kim Jong-un’s proposed reforms
North Korean Army soldiers and civilians on the stands of the Kim Il Sung Stadium, a photograph by Ilya Pitalev which won at the Sony World Photography Awards in 2013. Photograph: Ilya Pitalev/Sony
Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network
Wednesday 4 March 2015 05.00 GMT Last modified on Wednesday 4 March 2015 12.13 GMT
It might not be obvious from the outside, but experts agree that North Korea is undergoing significant upheaval. Kim Jong-un’s regime is said to be serious about reforms, with the so-called “30th May measures” promising to increase personal income and allow greater social mobility.
But this has left many wondering how North Korea’s strict songbun system of social classification will coexist with such unprecedented reforms.
Songbun was most important element in the social structure of Kim Il-sung’s North Korea. Sung, who established the Democratic People’s Republic in 1948, initiated the system of social classification in the late 1950s, dividing the population into groups according to the actions and status of their paternal ancestors during the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War.
Songbun determines, among other things, whether North Koreans are allowed to live in the capital or in special cities, the workplace they’re allocated, and what kind of education they can receive.
While there has been some research into songbun, much of it is either outdated or incomplete. Researchers aren’t allowed to access official North Korean documents of this kind, which are always classified, but fortunately I have a friend who served in the North Korean police and is very familiar with the songbun documents, who was able to explain it in more detail.
Brahmins and untouchables, North Korean style
According to this system of social classification North Korean society is divided to five groups, from the best to the worst: special, nucleus, basic, complex and hostile. Earlier research has usually only mentioned three strata, because the existence of the special class was largely unknown, and the complex classification was only introduced in the 2000s.
Nucleus, also known as core, is the standard. Special is very rare and acts as a bonus in status. In contrast, basic (also known as wavering) can lead to slight discrimination, while people deemed complex and especially hostile face substantial prejudice.
‘Awarded with an audience’ is a title given to North Koreans who have talked to the leader for 20 minutes or more
A possible exception from this system would be blood relatives of the Kim family, who are seemingly excluded from all official documentation, although this remains to be verified.
Songbun is calculated from two factors. The first measures the social position and actions of one’s paternal ancestors during the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War. Did they fight with Kim Il-sung and later remain close to the Great Leader? Congratulations, your ancestry songbun is as good as it can be. Or, did they work as a clerk in the colonial administration, or worse, were they part of a faction in the independence movement that later proved hostile to Kim? Well then, your ancestry songbun is very bad and you’re unlikely to advance to any meaningful position in society.
The second – social songbun – measures the place occupied by a person in North Korean society; a worker, farmer, military man, teacher or policeman. There is, however, one variation of social songbun which overrides all others – party member – and another, the strange sounding “awarded with an audience”.
Portraits of North Korea’s national founder Kim Il-sung (left) and late leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photograph: AP
The latter is a title given to North Koreans who have talked to the leader for 20 minutes or more, or who have had their picture taken with him. That’s why commemoration photos printed in the official newspaper of the ruling Worker’s Party, Rodong Sinmun, often include thousands of people – the songbun of all of them has just increased.
Songbun influences many aspects of life in North Korea. If your songbun isn’t good enough, you cannot live in Pyongyang. Or, you cannot enter a good university, no matter how smart you are. You cannot be employed as a teacher or a policemen with bad or even average songbun. And if you want to join the ranks of the secret police (as many North Koreans do) not only you, but all you relatives up to the sixth generation must have a good songbun, or you do not qualify.
Can you alter your songbun? When it comes to ancestry , the answer is almost always no. Records are kept in four locations: at the local administration office, ordinary police, secret police and at specific organisations, like the Worker’s Party, Women’s Union, or labour union.
The situation during the Kim Il-sung era was much the same: a person of bad ancestry could not get a good job, so his or her songbun remained bad too. However, many things have changed since Kim Il-sung died in 1994, and the role of this system of classification is one of them. Now, a person who has worked for three years gets a new social designation decided upon by the decision of the local party committee. And these days even people of questionable ancestry can join the party. Some North Korean officials have also started to simply ignore songbun, reasoning that punishing someone for the sins of their ancestors is unfair and unjust.
The role of songbun is gradually reducing, as the country embraces new ways and new economic models. If Kim Jong-un really wants to proceed with promised reforms, one of the necessary steps would be to abolish songbun, at least in practice.
A version of this article first appeared on NK News
Introducing the retirement home for old age pussycats
Elderly cats can spend the last years of their nine lives in comfort at special accommodation dedicated to looking after senior felines.
By Becky Barnes
Last updated: 04 March 2015, 16:19 GMT
Elderly cats whose owners pass away or can no longer look after them can live out the rest of their years in comfort at a retirement home dedicated to felines.
There are 76 ‘Old Age Pussycats’ aged 10 to 20 living at the Lincolnshire Trust for Cats retirement home, which has been adapted especially for moggies.
Pet owners must pay a one-off fee of £850 for their cat to be taken in at the home, which is south-facing – giving animals plenty of sunshine to relax in – and furnished for their comfort.
Jain Hills, who set up the retirement home in 2001, wanted to do something for older cats when she saw they were being rejected by rehoming charities.
“I don’t think anywhere else does it because people come all the way from London with the cats to come here,” the 65-year-old said.
The oldest cat at the home is Henry, 20, whose owner died. He has a favourite armchair, which the other cats know not to sit in.
The home is also open to cats whose owners leave the country. One of the whiskered residents gets parcels sent to her from overseas, which she is apparently happy to share with her furry friends.
The seven-acre retirement facility offers individual rooms for new arrivals while they get settled and has three sitting rooms for the cats to lounge in, linked by enclosed outdoor areas.
The house is kept warm with central heating, is decorated in cat memorabilia and has leather sofas and Indian rugs for the cats to nap on.
There are also more than 400 stray cats taken in by the charity now living on the grounds.
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Our Letter of Confession
“A witness saw a young woman who folded her hands in a praying fashion when the SSD [State Security Department] interrogated her. The SSD suspected therefore that she was a Christian. They took her to another room and beat her until she confessed.”
Now is the time to make our confession to Kim Jong Un. We declare that we will remain loyal to the one true God and continue to stand with our persecuted family members in North Korea.
We know what is happening in North Korea. We commit to telling the world about the crimes of its leader and to do everything in our power to assist our persecuted family there.
We invite you to add your voice in support of North Korean Christians by digitally signing the Letter of Confession. We will deliver these letters to North Korea’s representatives to the United Nations.
|He shouldn’t even be in prison|
|Dear friend, Gao Zhisheng shouldn’t be in prison right now. The Chinese human rights lawyer has been targeted by the government for defending Christians and other religious minorities. They’ve shut down his law firm, revoked his lawyer’s licence – and since 2006 he’s been in and out of prison, suffering illegal detention and torture. All for speaking up for justice. Ask your MP to call for Gao’s release from prison.|
|Gao’s family haven’t seen him since January 2013 – and even then, they were only allowed a half-hour visit. He is due to be released on 22 August 2014, according to some legal experts. The Chinese government has consistently failed to provide information on his whereabouts and even his health, so it’s vital that we make sure they know we’re expecting his release. And last year, Gao’s wife Geng He asked the international community to keep pressing the Chinese authorities on his case “as the best way to protect him”. Gao and his family have suffered tremendous injustice for far too long. Please urge your MP to take action for Gao today. Thank you so much. Yours in hope for freedom Emma CSW Campaigns Team P.S. The Chinese government is desperate to keep Gao quiet – but he’s desperate to speak up against injustice. Email your MP today to call for Gao’s release. Thank you!|
|Urgent: Your prayers this week will change lives|
|Dear friend, Thank you so much for your campaigning and prayers for some desperate situations in the last few weeks. This week has been filled with highs and lows – the news of Meriam’s release, followed swiftly the family’s detention at Khartoum airport 24 hours later. Meriam isn’t the only person who needs God’s intervention on her behalf and your prayers are vital – will you continue to pray for the following situations with us?|
|SUDAN: Meriam Ibrahim and family still detained Meriam Ibrahim, whose death sentence for apostasy was quashed on Monday, is still being held after being detained along with her family at the airport on Tuesday. Meriam is being investigated by the police for alleged irregularities with her travel documents. The police have refused to release the family on bail whilst they carry out their investigation.
>> More prayer points available at www.csw.org.uk/prayformeriam
| ERITREA: Your prayers this week could change Eritrea’s future On Thursday the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) will discuss, and hopefully adopt, a strong resolution condemning the continuing, severe and widespread human rights violations committed by Eritrea against its citizens and calling for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the violations outlined in reports by the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea. This is a bold step and one which needs to be underpinned by prayer if it’s to be successful.
| IRAN: Behnam Irani returned to prison after disappearance As you may know Pastor Behnam Irani, who was jailed on political charges, was assaulted earlier this month and was removed to an unknown location. He has now been returned to Ghezal Hesar, but his physical condition and whereabouts during the time of his disappearance are unclear.
| CUBA: Reverend Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso and his wife detained by authorities You may remember Reverend Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso and his wife Yoaxis from previous emails and our Response newsletter – they are religious freedom activists who have regularly been targeted by the Cuban government. They were detained by police last weekend, and although they were released two hours later, police have confiscated their computer. We’re concerned that state security officials could plant information on their computer in order to justify criminal charges.
|To get regular prayer updates from CSW to keep praying for these and other situations, please sign up here. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16 Blessings, Emma CSW Communications Team P.s. Please forward this email to your friends and encourage them to pray too. Thanks again for your support!|
|BREAKING: Meriam is free!|
|Dear friend, Just a few hours ago, we received some wonderful news: Meriam Ibrahim has been freed!
I wanted you to be among the first to know that the appeal court has overturned her convictions for adultery and apostasy, and declared her innocent of all charges. She and her children, Martin and Maya, are now back with her husband Daniel. We are thanking God for this amazing miracle! Can you join us to keep praying for Meriam and her family?
|Meriam and her family still aren’t safe. People claiming to be her family members have threatened to carry out her death sentence themselves, and her lawyers have received death threats because of their involvement with her case. We’re appalled by this. Everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief, and to uphold this right, as Meriam’s lawyers are doing. This right is guaranteed in international law, as well as in Sudan’s own constitution. Please pray urgently for Meriam, her family and her lawyers.|
|It’s time to change the world, so that no one should have to go through what Meriam went through – months on death row, simply because of her faith. She even had to give birth in chains. Please uphold her in prayer. Thank you. Blessings Emma CSW Communications Team P.S. Thank you so much for everything you did to help secure Meriam’s release. But she’s not the only one we’re campaigning for. As long as there are people who are harassed, threatened and imprisoned for their faith, we’ll be speaking up for them. I’ll be in touch with you soon to tell you how you can get involved – meanwhile, thank you again for all you’ve done. Meriam is free!|
Deadly attacks, particularly on Christian communities, are now the weekly norm. According to a local human rights NGO, at least 1,296 people died between 1 April and 5 June.
We’ve put together downloadable resources to help you, your church and small group to rise up in prayer for this troubled nation. There’s a poster, a prayer sheet, and Twitter header and Facebook cover images so you can show your support. Just click here to download your free resources, and use them all through the week of 15-22 June, or whenever convenient for you.
The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love.
We’ve seen God move in incredible ways when we’ve joined together to pray for Nigeria before. We’ve seen expected attacks headed off, violence brought to a halt, perpetrators arrested, and peace-building initiatives flourish. Please join us for the Nigeria Week of Prayer, and let God arise.
Iran: Pastor Irani beaten in prison and taken to unknown location 09/06/2014
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has learned that Pastor Behnam Irani, who was sentenced in 2011 to six years imprisonment on political charges, was beaten in prison and transferred to an unknown location in the early hours of 7 June.
Pastor Irani was summoned by Judge Mohammad Yari, Chief of the Sixth Chamber of the Revolutionary Tribunal at 6:30 am on 7 June. As the summons appeared irregular and contrary to judicial process, Pastor Irani rejected it and wrote a letter of protest. However, at 9 am, VEVAK intelligence agents entered his prison cell and proceeded to beat him before he was taken to see Mohammad Yari. He was subsequently transferred to an unknown location.
The assault on Pastor Irani is the latest of several reports in recent weeks of Iranian authorities using excessive violence against prisoners of conscience.
Pastor Irani is the leader of the Church of Iran congregation in Karaj. He was initially arrested in December 2006, and was sentenced in 2011 to six years imprisonment on charges of “action against the state” and “action against the order.”
Two weeks ago, Pastor Irani’s bible and other Christian literature was confiscated by authorities. Recent events have given rise to concerns that the authorities may be planning to add charges to his existing sentence.
During the first few months of his imprisonment in Ghezal Hesar, Pastor Irani was held incommunicado in a small cell, where guards repeatedly woke him from sleep as a form of psychological torture. He was moved to a cramped room where inmates could not lie down to sleep, before being transferred to a crowded, filthy cell, which he shares with 40 criminals, many of whom are violent. He has been subjected to physical and psychological pressure, and has suffered regular beatings from cell mates and prison authorities, as well as death threats.
In February 2014, Pastor Irani successfully underwent surgery to treat stomach and colon complications.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “We are deeply concerned to hear of the assault on Pastor Irani and his enforced disappearance, especially given his medical complications. We cannot begin to imagine the distress this news must be causing his family and friends. CSW urges the authorities to make Pastor Irani’s whereabouts known and to provide him with any medical treatment he may need following his beating at the hands of VEVAK security agents. Furthermore, we continue to call for his release, since in reality he is in prison on account of his faith and in contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is party. We also urge the Iranian authorities to end assaults on prisoners, as they violate the nation’s obligations under article 10 of the ICCPR, which states that prisoners should be treated with humanity and with respect for their inherent human dignity.”