The Daily Lives of the 99%

At Kyongsang Kindergarten, pieces of an unused playground are roped off as a crowd surrounds the display. A Chosun People’s Army officer proudly states “We will install the amusement facilities on the highest level so that kindergarteners can keenly feel Supreme Commander Kim Jong Eun’s love for them.” Children jump up and down, excitedly, as if their emotion will burst.

A camera shifts to an image of a beautiful five year old girl singing with her ponytail in a white bow. In thankfulness she sings her praises to her leader, Kim Jong Eun. Girls in their hanbok dance as others race holding pinwheels; receiving blow up animal prizes.They grasp their prizes and walk hurriedly away. Soldiers create a background of dull brown in contrast to the stripes of the traditional Korean garb before them.

But as the North Korean cameras focus on the bright colors of the hanbok for the celebration of the 66th anniversary of the Chosun Children’s Union, the international community’s attention turns to the grim reality of those excluded from the festivities.

On June 6th, the U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) released “Marked for Life: Songbun North Korean Class Structure”, a report by Robert Collins. The report details how the North Korean regime breaks down its society into 51 social ‘classes’ within three primary divisions- the loyal, wavering and hostile class.

Through 75 interviews with North Korean defectors and extensive use of Korean language material, Collins provides an in-depth look into the North Korean class structure that continues to limit individual rights within the hermit kingdom. From employment to military enlistment, marriage, housing, education and food, the lives of North Koreans remain defined by Songbun from the cradle to the grave.

Contributing to the report is a 1993 manual by North Korea’s Public Safety Ministry entitled “Resident Registration Project Reference Manual.” The government issued manual stresses the importance of loyalty in the North Korean system and provides information to investigators and officials for the sole purpose of determining an individual’s Songbun.

The HRNK report connects Songbun to the percentage of children who showed evidence of malnutrition in the Great Famine of the 1990’s to the percentage within the divisions of Songbun. With North Korea reportedly facing the worst drought in sixty years and the state continuing to face severe food shortages, there remains a space between a carefully created facade and reality.

In contrast with North Korean propaganda that states, “There is no other country like the DPRK where children enjoy all the blessings of a king,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen is quoted in the report as stating that “nowhere does songbun impact a North Korean more than in the food situation.”

One can only hope that the children of North Korea will not continue to suffer from stunting caused by severe malnutrition or turn to food substitutes such as tree bark and grass to fill their stomachs. That others may be saved from watching as their mothers pass away before them from curable diseases while they are able to procure the necessary medicines or cross the border to China to survive, only to be labeled traitors to their country.

As stories emerge beside the bright colors of Pyongyang, words spoken by Kim Jong Il, “Every home will be full of laughter and harmony” are fading.

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