Classes and Social Strata

North Korea Table of Contents

Although socialism promises a society of equals in which class oppression is eliminated, most evidence shows that great social and political inequality continues to exist in North Korea in the early 1990s. The state is the sole allocator of resources, and inequalities are justified in terms of the state's political and economic imperatives. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are described by unsympathetic foreign observers as living like kings. (The South Korean film director Sin Sangok and his actress wife, Ch'oe Unhui, who were apparently kidnapped and taken to North Korea on Kim Jong Il's orders, described him as a fanatic film buff with a library of 15,000 films; they claimed that he alone could view these films, which were collected for his benefit by North Korean diplomats abroad.) Equally important from the standpoint of social stratification, however, is a small and clearly defined elite within the ruling KWP, who, like the privileged communists listed in the former Soviet Union's nomenklatura, a listing of positions and personnel, have emerged as a "new class" with a relatively high standard of living and access to consumer goods not available to ordinary people.

According to North Korean sources cited by Eberstadt and Banister, total membership in the KWP in 1987 was "over 3 million," or almost 15 percent of the estimated population of 20.3 million that year. Membership in the party requires a politically "clean" background. Given the KWP's status as a revolutionary "vanguard party," these individuals clearly constitute an elite; it is unclear, however, how the standards of living of lower echelon party members differ from those of nonparty members. Nonetheless, party membership is clearly the smoothest path for upward social mobility. It opens opportunities such as university attendance to members and their children. The statecontrolled media repeatedly exhorts party members to eschew "bureaucratism" and arrogance in dealing with nonparty people. But it is unclear how successful the regime is in uprooting the centuries-old tradition of kwanjon minbi (honor officials, despise the people), which often make the traditional aristocratic yangban elite insufferably arrogant.

Although Japan had promoted some industrialization in the northern part of their Korean colony during the occupation, most of the Korean Peninsula's population before 1945 were farmers. North Korea's industrialization after the Korean War, however, transformed the nature of work and occupational categories. In the late 1980s, the government divided the labor force into four categories: "workers," who were employed at state-owned enterprises; "farmers," who worked on agricultural collectives; "officials," who performed nonmanual labor and probably included teachers, technicians, and health-care workers as well as civil servants and KWP cadres; and workers employed in "cooperative industrial units," which Eberstadt and Banister suggest constitute a minuscule private sector. North Korean government statistics showed that the state "worker" category constituted the largest category in 1987, or 57 percent of the labor force. Farmers comprised the second largest category at 25.3 percent; and officials and industrial cooperative workers, 16.8 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively. Within the "worker" category, skilled workers in the fisheries and in the heavy, mining, and defense industries tend to be favored in terms of economic incentives over their counterparts in light and consumer industries; the labor force in urban areas tend to be favored over farmers. Despite the small size of the "cooperative industrial sector," that is, the industrial counterpart of the cooperative (collective) farms enterprise, a black market apparently exists, with prices as much as ten times higher than those in the official distribution system. Farmers' markets also exist. The black market is not likely to be large enough to foster the emergence of a sizable, shadowy class of smugglers and entrepreneurs.

Food and other necessities of life are strictly rationed, and different occupational groups are reported to receive different qualities and kinds of goods. Sin Sangok and Ch'oe Unhui wrote in the South Korean media in the late 1980s that consumption of beef and pork is largely restricted to "middle-class" and "upper-class people"; "ordinary people" can obtain no meat except dog meat, which is not rationed. An exception is made for the New Year's holidays, Kim Il Sung's birthday, and other holidays, when pork is made available to all. They also report that the regime is actively encouraging sons to assume the occupations of their fathers and that "job succession is regarded as a cardinal virtue in North Korea."

Housing is another area of social inequality. According to a South Korean source, North Korea has five types of standardized housing allotted according to rank; the highest ranks--the party and state elite--live in one- or two-story detached houses. Sixty percent of the population, consisting of ordinary workers and farmers, live in multi-unit dwellings of no more than one or two rooms, including the kitchen.

Family background, in terms of political and ideological criteria, is extremely relevant to one's social status and standard of living. Sons and daughters of revolutionaries and those who died in the Korean War are favored for educational opportunities and advancement. For these children, a special elite school, the Mangyngdae Revolutionary Institute, was established near P'yongyang at the birthsite of Kim Il Sung. South Korean scholar Lee Mun Woong wrote that illegitimate children are also favored because they are raised entirely in state-run nurseries and schools and are not subject to the corruption of traditionally minded parents.

Conversely, the children and descendants of "exploiting class" parents--those who collaborated with the Japanese during the colonial era, opposed agricultural collectivization in the 1950s, or were associated with those who had fled to South Korea- -are discriminated against. They are considered "contaminated" by the bad influences of their parents and have to work harder to acquire reputable positions. Relatives of those who had fled to South Korea are especially looked down on and considered "bad elements." Persons with unfavorable political backgrounds are often denied admission to institutions of higher education, despite their intellectual qualifications.

With the exception of disabled Korean War veterans, physically handicapped people appear to be subject to special discrimination, according to international human rights organizations. For example, they are not allowed to enter P'yongyang, and those who manage to live in the capital are periodically sought out by the police and expelled. These sources also allege that persons of below-normal height (dwarfs) have been forced to live in a special settlement in a remote rural area. South Korean sources also cite examples of single women over forty years of age who are considered social misfits and are thus harassed.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress