Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System
Pyongyang Republic: North Korea’s Capital of Human Rights Denial
The pudgy cheeks and flaring hairdo of North Korea’s young ruler Kim Jong-un, his bromance with tattooed and pierced former basketball star Dennis Rodman, his boy-on-a-lark grin at missile firings, combine incongruously with the regime’s pledge to drown its enemies in a “sea of fire.” They elicit a mix of revulsion and ridicule in the West. Many predict that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea cannot survive much longer, given its pervasive poverty, genocidal prison camp system identified by a UN commission of inquiry as committing crimes against humanity,1 self-imposed economic isolation, confrontations with all of its neighbors, and its leader’s youth and inexperience. The Obama administration has adopted a position of “strategic patience,” waiting for intensifying international sanctions to force North Korea either to give up its nuclear weapons or to implode and be taken over by the pro-Western government of South Korea.
But North Korea’s other closest neighbors, the Chinese, have never expected the DPRK to surrender or collapse, and so far they have been correct. Instead of giving up its nuclear bomb and missile programs, Pyongyang is by now thought to have between ten and twenty nuclear devices and over one thousand short-, medium-, and long-range missiles, and to be developing a compact warhead that will be able to hit the US mainland.
At home, the regime recently survived the toughest test that totalitarian systems face, a leadership succession. The country was ruled by Kim Il-sung from 1948, when the postwar Soviet occupation of North Korea ended, until his death in 1994; by his son, Kim Jong-il, from 1994 until he died in 2011; and since 2011 by the founder’s grandson, Kim Jong-un. Jong-un was his father’s youngest son and a surprise successor; he emerged as heir apparent only two years before his father’s death, in contrast to his father, who had been heir apparent for twenty years. Kim Jong-il is believed to have run the country’s terrorism, counterfeiting, smuggling, and proliferation operations for most of that time.
In another contrast, the second Kim had staged a protracted public mourning for his father and made a show of modesty by postponing his formal takeover of top posts for three years, whereas Jong-un, only twenty-seven years old, anointed himself as first secretary of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) immediately upon his father’s death and before long assumed the posts of chair of the Central Military Commission, chair of the National Defense Commission, and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, among others. This May, he summoned the…
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