N. Korea orders reorganization of the country’s caste system

New effort to reclassify North Koreans' songbun categorization is focused on better understanding the ideological mindset of the country's younger generation

pyongyang songbun
Male North Korean resident pushing a stroller in Pyongyang / Image: Daily NK

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) last month to reclassify the “birth songbun” and “social songbun” of all North Koreans, Daily NK has learned. 

Kim’s move appears to be part of an effort to get a better handle on the “ideological consciousness” of the country’s more liberal-minded younger generation with a view to more efficiently exert control over them.

“In mid-January, the MPS’s Bureau 8 received an order from Kim to reorganize the songbun system,” a source in North Korea told Daily NK on Feb. 18. “The MPS immediately prepared the necessary steps to do this and began implementing them from the beginning of this month.”

The MPS is charged with general policing duties in North Korea. The agency’s Bureau 8 organizes and manages the personal information of all North Koreans, including births, marriages, and deaths. The bureau has reportedly started the reclassification process in Pyongyang and the agency’s officials are currently classifying the city’s residents into one of 12 categories. 

INESCAPABLE SONGBUN

Birth songbun, or family ancestry, refers to the songbun of an individual’s parents at the time of their birth. Social songbun, otherwise known as an individual’s job category, is the songbun of an individual’s parents when the individual reaches adulthood (and obtains formal citizenship).

Birth and social songbun both group people into one of four categories: soldier, office worker, worker, or farmer. North Korean officialdom treats residents discriminatory on the basis of which category they belong to.

“When people are assigned to positions in the party [Workers’ Party of Korea], government or the military, songbun becomes an important yardstick of appraisal,” the source explained. “Birth and social songbun provide officials with a way to understand where the person came from and the potential they have for development in the society.”

Kim ordered that individuals be grouped into one of twelve categories, which appears to be aimed at allowing officials to quickly understand the “ideological status” and “inclinations” of individual North Koreans. 

Daily NK sources explained that there were originally just 10 categories, but that Kim created two more: “ideologically wavering” and “complainers and discontents.”

“The authorities think that the solidarity of the nation could collapse if young people become susceptible to the ‘yellow winds’ [capitalism],” and view this issue as a very serious one facing the country,” one source said. “They view it more necessary than ever to carefully monitor the ideological inclinations of the younger generation because they never experienced the hardships of the revolution.” 

North Korea’s so-called “jangmadang generation,” which was forced to rely on their own wits to survive and had no need for the government’s public distribution system, have in recent years become a main pillar of North Korean society.

As Kim’s recent songbun reclassification order suggests, North Korean officials have recognized this change in their society and have begun efforts to clearly and accurately understand the ideology and consciousness of this younger group of people. 

North Korea’s moves to reclassify the songbun of its population is ultimately, however, aimed at ensuring they remain loyal to the state. The younger generation has shown a greater affinity toward “individualism” and “capitalism” than previous generations, which were more outwardly loyal to the WPK and the state and more willing to sacrifice for their country. 

NO STONE LEFT UNTURNED

Departments dealing with resident registration in each of Pyongyang’s police stations and in its Public Security Bureau are reportedly in the midst of the songbun reorganization process. Local police officials with intimate knowledge of local residents, police informants, and the heads of inminbans are working together to classify the city’s residents into one of the twelve categories. 

“After Pyongyang officials finish reordering the songbun of the city’s residents, the central government will likely start the process anew on residents living outside of the city in the provinces,” the source added. 

North Korean officials have also reportedly changed the regulations surrounding the storage of “death reports.” 

“Originally, the authorities kept death-related documents for just three years, but the central government recently ordered that officials should keep summaries of the documents on file forever,” a source told Daily NK. 

“That way, officials will be able to trace the family background of the deceased person and track their ‘ideological roots,’” he added.

*Translated by Alek Sigley 

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