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PRESS RELEASE: Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea's Social Classification System
June 06, 2012


Report Embargoed until 12:01 am EDT, Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Releases First Comprehensive Study of North Korea’s Discriminatory Social Classification System: “Songbun.”

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a Washington D.C.-based non-governmental organization which researches and reports on North Korean human rights, will launch the publication Marked For Life: Songbun—North Korea’s Social Classification System on June 6, 2012 at the American Enterprise Institute. 

The report was authored by Robert Collins, a 37-year veteran of the Department of Defense and an expert on North Korea and Northeast Asian security issues. Collins argues that it is essential to shed light on the songbun system because it is “the basic concept underlying all of North Korea’s human rights violations” and permeates every aspect of North Korean society. He dedicated the report to the 75 North Korean defectors he interviewed to produce it.

At birth, each North Korean is assigned a songbun status by the government based on the perceived political loyalty of one’s family to the regime. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” all North Koreans are classified as “loyal,” “wavering, or “hostile” and face discrimination on the basis of this classification in food distribution, housing, residential location, employment, education, and all aspects of a person’s life. The wavering and hostile classes are estimated to total 72% of the population, or more than 16 million North Koreans. Only the small politically loyal class is entitled to live in Pyongyang and benefit from extensive privileges, 

North Korea’s political prison camps or “gulags,” in which an estimated 150,000 to 200, 000 are incarcerated, were originally designed to root out “counter-revolutionaries” from society, expel them from Pyongyang, and isolate them and their families in remote, inhospitable areas in the mountains. 

“The North Korean government has the notable distinction of being one of the most brutal, repressive, and controlled political systems of the past century,” says Andrew Natsios, former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Co-Chair of the Committee. The songbun system leads to a society that is highly stratified as a means of social control, where every North Korean is truly “marked for life” from birth. 

“Although money, bribery and corruption have recently begun to erode the songbun system,” observes Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee, “the main elements of this pernicious political segregation remain in place, guaranteed by a complete absence of political freedom.”

“Throughout its 64 year existence, the Kim regime has claimed that North Korea is an egalitarian workers’ paradise. Yet, inequality is assigned at birth, perpetuated throughout a person’s lifetime and cruelly enforced by those in power to benefit themselves and their supporters,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee.

As a starting point, this report recommends that North Korea allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea full, free, and unimpeded access, so that they can study the impact of the songbun system on the human rights of North Koreans. Governments, NGOs and international organizations are urged to call attention to this deliberate state policy of discrimination and work to eliminate this practice that so flagrantly violates basic principles of human rights.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, established in 2001 by a distinguished group of foreign policy and human rights specialists, seeks to draw attention to human rights conditions in North Korea by publishing well-documented reports and papers, convening conferences, testifying at national and international fora, and seeking creative ways to end the isolation of the North Korean people. Most recently, the Committee launched its Hidden Gulag publication on North Korean political prison camps at an April 2012 conference in Washington DC. 

For inquiries regarding the songbun report, please contact Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea ([email protected], 202-499-7973).

Embargoed until 12:01 a.m. February 25, 2021.  South Africa’s Apartheid and North Korea’s Songbun: Parallels in Crimes against Humanity by Robert Collins underlines similarities between two systematically, deliberately, and thoroughly discriminatory repressive systems. This project began with expert testimony Collins submitted as part of a joint investigation and documentation project scrutinizing human rights violations committed at North Korea’s short-

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