North Korea’s family background registration system, commonly known as Songbun, is one of the most distinctive features of the country’s system for social control and surveillance. By tying social position to each individual’s family background, the system is one of the main inhibitors of social mobility in the country. Songbun, however, is much more dysfunctional and less static than current academic research would suggest.
Building upon circa thirty qualitative, deep interviews with people from North Korea as well as secret North Korean government materials, this paper shows that the application of the Songbun system has often been plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies and mistakes. Far from the smooth, totalitarian government apparatus described classical historical theories, tales abound of people who had their family background misclassified due to mistakes in the bureaucracy, during rounds of Songbun investigations. Theoretically, citizens have a recourse to demand their Songbun status changed, but practical conditions render this almost impossible, a fact to which interviewees attest.
By drawing upon both oral sources and a broad range of printed materials from North Korea, this paper paints a more complex, dynamic picture of the historical evolution of the Songbun system. It argues that even though the state has tried to make family background a smaller factor for social mobility, the Songbun system has been remarkably resistant to change.