Of all the human rights violations committed by the North Korean regime, the one that fails to grab significant attention is the caste system that classifies citizens into five levels of social stratification.
The system, known as the Songbun, was put into place by the founder of the communist state, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-Un.
Sung divided the population in 1950s based on the services and status of their paternal ancestors during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45) and the Korean War (1950-53).
The social classes are divided into five levels, starting from the elite class down to the lowest one: special, nucleus, basic, complex and hostile.
As the name suggests the “special” citizens are the rare ones born into well-off families with connections. “Nucleus” is apparently the most common and the largest caste in the country and it’s after this level that the trouble begins for North Koreans.
People born into “basic,” “complex” and “hostile” categories face discrimination and are often not rewarded for their achievements. They receive lower food rations, have fewer employment prospects and are under constant surveillance of the government.
The worst part is that North Koreans cannot even fight the discrimination because Songbun is a “hereditary” division – they are born with a social tag and are forced to endure it for as long as they live.
Jun Yoo-sung, a North Korean writer with NK News, wrote in a blogpost how he wasn’t allowed to get into a good university despite having decent grades, all because he belonged to a lower caste:
“During my senior year of high school, I took and successfully passed the test to be admitted into a No. 1 high school, which only accepts the best and most gifted students in North Korea. I graduated summa cum laude with the highest grades in every subject. But as I did not come from a good family background (under the North Korean Songbun caste system, if you aren’t from a good family background, you cannot go to the top universities even if you have good grades), the government wouldn’t allow me to attend Kim Il Sung University.”
In 2012, a report from a U.S.-based advocacy group highlighted the injustice of Songbun.
"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," Robert Collins, researcher and author with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, stated.
Human rights abuses such as religious persecution and slave labor in North Korea are well-documented. However, the disparity caused by Songbun is something that North Korean citizens face in all aspects of their lives.
Unfortunately, like all other woes his people face on a daily basis, Kim Jong-Un doesn’t really care about the impact of the infamous social caste system, especially when his family is immune from the stratification.