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Reflections of Joseon in DPRK's Songbun Caste System


Social stratification refers to “the allocation of individuals and groups into various social hierarchies of differing power, status, or prestige.”[i] In North Korea all citizens are equal according to the government, however this is far from the reality. Songbun, the social status assigned at birth to North Koreans is well and present in North Korean society. Depending on family background, a North Korean individual will have their entire life mapped out for them. Songbun affects what sort of opportunities an individual is given, certain responsibilities delegated, and even how much food is allocated to them during times of famine. Interestingly enough, songbun can be traced back to the late Joseon caste system. Although there are immense differences between the two caste systems, there also happens to be striking resemblances shared between the two. This article seeks to explore what elements songbun carried over from the Joseon caste system.

The Joseon Caste System: Application of Neo-Confucianism

The Joseon caste system was based on Neo-Confucianism and was highly hierarchical. Some historians compare the structural system to the caste system of India, although the Joseon caste system was certainly not as rigid as the Indian caste system.[ii] The caste system was technically split into three levels, although it can be argued that there were actually four levels to the caste system. Yangban were placed at the top of the caste system. This was the scholar-gentry class. Although hereditary, there were stipulations in order to maintain the yangban status. In order to keep the status, the yangban class had to pass the civil-service exam. This exam tested the knowledge of Confucian poetry and classics, and was modeled after the Chinese civil-service exam. If a family were to fail to pass the exam for three generations, the family could be stripped of their yangban status and be reduced to commoners. This rule was never actually applied, but it was motivation for the yangban class to do well in the exam.[iii] This caste level was split into two groups – military officials and civil officials. They enjoyed military and tax exemption, and generally lived in the city away from the rest of the common people. The next caste level was the chungin level, which meant “middle people.” Indeed this caste was the upper-middle class of the Joseon caste system. They were considered a privileged class of commoners who worked for the yangban and the royal family. They usually held “white-collar jobs” such as astronomers, interpreters, and other technical occupations. They were considered highly educated and although inferior to the yangban, they enjoyed similar privileges to the upper class such as military and tax exemption and were allowed to live in the city center.[iv] Below the chungin was the sangmin class, which made up 80% of the Joseon population. They were subject to heavy taxation and military conscription. The type of people in this were artisans, fisherman, or merchants. They were considered the “pure” working class. The lowliest of people were subject to the cheonmin class. These people were considered “unclean” Due to the Joseon Dynasty's Neo-Confucianism ideas of morality and hierarchy, the people who could not conform to these ideals were designated to the lowest class. This was a more or less hereditary class and could not participate in social examinations to raise their status. People such as female entertainers, butchers, cobblers, and shamans were a part of this class. They usually lived far away from the city in secluded areas. Slaves were also a part of this class. Historian and author Baek Ji-won argues that the caste system and insane rules that were a part of the Joseon dynasty were the reason for the internal turmoil that plagued the dynasty throughout its 500 year reign.[v] Ultimately, Baek Ji-won argues that many things in modern day Korean society have been influenced by the Joseon caste system.

Songbun: The Joseon Caste System Turned on its Head

The current caste system of North Korea contains striking resemblances to the caste system of the Joseon dynasty. Although more subliminal than defined, the North Korean caste system – known as songbun – penetrates all levels of life in North Korea.[vi] This caste system determines the opportunities and responsibilities given to an individual in North Korea. It can even – in the case of famine – determine how much food rations an individual is designated.[vii] North Korea determines an individual’s status based on their family loyalty to the government. There are three distinct loyalty groups under the songbun system. The first is the core class, which makes up 25% of the population. These are descendants of peasants or factory workers, or those who participated in the fight against Japanese occupation, to include high-ranking military officials and their families.[viii] The next class below the core class is the “wavering” class, which makes up about 55% of the population. This is the average North Korean. They are considered the neutral class. The last class is the hostile class, which makes up about 20% of North Korean society. These are former Christian ministers, landowners, lawyers, or merchants. They are considered the lowest of the caste system. This system was instilled in 1957 by the Korean Workers Party Politburo publication called “On the Transformation of the Struggle with Counter Revolutionary Elements into an All-People All-Party Movement,” although currently the North Korean government officially denies there is any social stratification in the country. This caste system is hereditary, and, in many cases, North Koreans are not fully aware what class they are a part of until they grow older. When they are 17, each citizen is required to submit a resume of their family history. After which they become more aware of their class, because this is where they are sorted into their responsibilities in society.[ix] Many of the wavering class will try to join the North Korean Workers Party to try and buy their families a better life. This is subliminally how North Korea secures its loyalty from its citizens.


The Joseon Caste system was eventually abolished in 1894. Historian Baek Ji-won attests that the Joseon caste system was among the worst in the world, alongside the caste system of India.[x] He also contends that the Joseon caste system was based so highly off of Neo-Confucianism ideals that it failed to relate to the commoner class of people that made up the majority of its population. Joseon was a state that only benefited the yangban, who continuously exploited the lower class because of this. Baek Ji-won also believes that many of the problems in modern day Korean society are due to the historical influences of the Joseon caste system.[xi] Songbun is essentially the inverse of the Joseon caste system. North Korea’s Songbun was an attempt to carve out its own path and set itself apart from the bygone days. By doing so, North Korea ironically repeated the past. North Korea’s songbun is still as hierarchical as the Joseon caste system and almost just as impenetrable. Although facets of the system are distinct and different to that of the Joseon caste system, North Korea’s songbun has taken great influence from its former caste system.

*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***


Works Cited:

[i] Andersen, Robert. Social Stratification. [ii] Baek Ji-won, Joseon History Through Eyes of Commoners. [iii] Turnbull, Stephen R., Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korea War, 1592-98. [iv] Chung-il Kim, The History of Korea. [v] Baek Ji-won, Joseon History Through Eyes of Commoners. [vi] Dernick, Barbara, Nothing to Envy: Love, Life, and Death in North Korea. [vii] McGrath, Matthew, Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System. [viii] Myers, B.R. [ix] McGrath, Matthew, Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System. [x] Baek Ji-Won, Joseon History Through Eyes of Commoners. [xi] Baek Ji-Won, Joseon History Through Eyes of Commoners.


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