WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A caste system under which North Korea ranks its citizens based on their family’s political background and punishes those deemed disloyal to the leadership underpins the country’s human rights abuses, according to a study published on Wednesday.
The “Songbun” system, which classifies North Koreans as “loyal,” “wavering,” or “hostile,” has largely escaped notice, even as U.N. agencies and rights groups have documented abuses, including vast camps of political prisoners, public executions, and extreme information controls, the report from a U.S.-based advocacy group argues.
“Every 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,” the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea said.
The three classes are further divided into 51 categories by family background or occupation, which determine the precise mix of privileges, punishments or surveillance, the report said.
The study, “Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System,” says the caste system is the root cause of abuses in a country whose nuclear arms program, ballistic missile tests and bellicose rhetoric tend to dominate headlines.
“The grim reality of North Korea is that this system creates a form of slave labor for a third of North Korea’s population of 23 million citizens and loyalty-bound servants out of the remainder,” writes researcher and author Robert Collins.
Collins, a retired Pentagon official, cites academic estimates that 28 percent of North Koreans are classified as loyal, 45 percent as wavering and 27 percent as hostile. But he notes that other experts put the hostile class at 40 percent.
The loyal “core” class of North Koreans include descendents of those who fought Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea and families of soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, as well as peasants and laborers.
Loyalists enjoy perks such as being allowed to live in the capital, Pyongyang, and preferences in access to housing, food, medical treatment, education and employment.
The hostile class includes descendents and relatives of people who collaborated with Japan or opposed state founder Kim Il-sung, whose grandson Kim Jong-un now rules North Korea, as well as those whose families escaped to South Korea, businessmen, religious figures and landlords.
North Koreans branded as hostile are assigned to dangerous hard labor in remote regions, receive low food rations, face discrimination in school admissions and marriage and are placed under constant surveillance. Family members share their fate, the report said.
In between are the wavering class of families of artisans, small shopkeepers and traders, those repatriated from China and intellectuals educated under Japanese rule. They are employed as low-level technicians and closely watched.
The 51 categories of people include poor farmers and “families of patriots” in the loyal category. Landlords, “reactionary elements” and “those who are lazy” are among wavering or hostile people needing surveillance.
While it is very rare for North Koreans to move up in class, many are demoted if they or family members are accused of crimes or otherwise fall out of political favor, said the report, published at hrnk.org/
Songbun - the Korean word for ingredient - “underlies most of the human rights abuses the regime commits. It is the hidden institution that facilitates widespread and systematic discrimination on a national scale,” it said.
The introduction of food markets after North Korea’s mid-1990s famine introduced some mobility and allowed members of the hostile class to make money and to pay bribes for goods and services formally denied their class.
Collins says, however, that the bribes go to the loyal class and the system remains mostly intact. Kim Jong-un is unlikely to give up practices that his father and grandfather employed to maintain the communist world’s only dynasty, he wrote.
The U.N. General Assembly annually votes to condemn North Korea’s human rights record, but U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations that work on rights issues meet hostility and non-cooperation from Pyongyang, whose officials deny the Songbun system exists, said the report.
U.N. agencies, foreign governments and NGOs must “sharpen their focus on North Korea’s primary tool for oppression and abuse and insist upon elimination of this practice with the same intensity and purpose with which the U.N. pursued international action to eliminate apartheid in South Africa,” it said.
Editing by David Brunnstrom