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While there has been some research into songbun, much of it is either outdated or incomplete.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.