New Report Details North Korea’s Political Apartheid System

Today at 2 p.m., the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea will formally release its new report, “Marked for life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System.” Here is an extended excerpt:

The songbun system in some ways resembles the apartheid race-based classification system of South Africa. Songbun subdivides the population of the country into 51 categories or ranks of trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state. These many categories are grouped into three broad castes: the core, wavering, and hostile classes. Kim Il-sung gave a public speech in 1958 in which he reported that the core class represented 25%, wavering class 55%, and hostile class 20% of the population.

These three classes may have affected how families fared during the Great Famine of the 1990s, which Hwang Jang-yop—the regime’s chief party ideologue who defected to South Korea in 1997— estimated may have killed 3.5 million North Koreans. In mid-1998 the World Food Program, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the European Union conducted the first country-wide survey of the nutritional condition of North Korean children. They reported that 32% of the children showed no evidence of malnutrition, 62% suffered from moderate malnutrition, and 16% suffered from severe acute malnutrition, with an error rate of 5%. While the survey had its limitations because of restrictions placed on the effort by the North Korean state, it is noteworthy that the size of the three social classes is about the same as the size of the nutritional categories. If the regime was feeding people through the public distribution system based on their songbun classification, it would be reflected in the nutritional data; and the data does show considerable coincidence. In the context of the famine, songbun may have determined who lived and who died, who ate well and who starved, and whose children suffered permanent physical (through stunting) and intellectual damage (prolonged acute malnutrition lowers IQ levels) from acute severe malnutrition. We have some evidence that the songbun system determined ration levels in the public distribution system which fed the country from the founding of the North Korean state until the deterioration of the system during the famine and its ultimate collapse.

What is most remarkable about the songbun system is how long it has been in existence with so little outside scrutiny focused on it. One of the Board members of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Helen-Louise Hunter, is one of the first western scholars to write extensively on the subject in her book published in 1998, Kim Il Song’s North Korea. Her book is based on classified research she had done for U.S. intelligence agencies, which was later declassified so it could be published. The failure of the human rights community, the United Nations agencies, and outside scholars of North Korea may be attributed to the closed nature of the North Korean system, but it may also be a result of a reluctance to believe earlier anecdotal reports of how repressive this system was. Some non-governmental organizations and aid workers early in the outside world’s understanding of the famine thought that the North Korean food distribution system was a socially equitable means of reducing famine deaths by distributing food equally for everyone. No one reading this report on the songbun system could reach any such misguided conclusion today on the nature of the North Korean regime, its use of songbun as a means for its own survival, and its ongoing systematic punishment of those who are at the bottom of the stratified system.

As recently as this week, there is fresh evidence that North Korea’s current outbreak of microfamines is not the result of thirty consecutive years of droughts or floods, but the result of how the regime seizes, allocates, and selectively denies food. The regime blames it on a drought this year, and on a flood last year, but the regime knows why its people are really starving:

The Workers’ Party of Korea compiled an internal report in mid-March acknowledging that the starvation of massive number of people in North Korea’s south in January and February was a human-made disaster, it has been learned.

The report specifically attributed the starvation to the excessive supply of food to the military despite a serious shortage of food due to a flood last summer, said North Korean sources involved in trade. The report has been viewed as a sign of commitment by the regime of new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to squarely face the country’s problems.

A large number of workers at collective farms in three districts of South Hwanghae Province as well as part of North Hwanghae Province starved to death along with their families in early 2012, according to the sources. The Workers’ Party of Korea compiled a report on the matter in mid-March, mentioning a serious food shortage in these areas.

“South Hwanghae Province fell into difficulty as a result of a flood,” the party report reads. “In particular, a large number of farmers and their families suffered from a shortage of food.” It then points out, “Farming households suffered because they had to secure rice for the military.”

Although rainfall in South Hwanghae Province has been lower than usual this year, it’s inconclusive that this has actually affected food production. Am I the only person to wonder why all of those droughts and floods never cause famines in South Korea?

Update:  Reporting from Reuters and — yes — the AP, too.


  1. Look how energetically the world protested Apartheid. For years anti-apartheid activism was THE cause on university campuses. I can remember in the late 70’s and 80’s it was huge. Hollywood celebrities tripped over one another to get their pictures taken with Nelson Mandela. There was a huge effort to get any endowment or pension funds that had any dollars invested with entities doing business with South Africa to divest those holdings ASAP. When I point this out to people they say, “Well our leverage against North Korea is much more limited.” It may be, but that is being used as an excuse to do nothing. I’m really troubled by the lack of mass outrage against the most barbaric totalitarian regime around.


  2. Whoops I misspoke above . I meant that celebrities were tripping over each other to have their photos taken with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Nelson Mandela was still in jail at that time.


  3. I admit I have never stopped to wonder my droughts in NK do not cause famine in SK. In a practical sense both share the same peninsula. In my mind’s eye they are in different solar systems.