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In the 1950s, Kim Il Sung’s songbun classification system divided the North Korean population into a loyal "core" class, a middle "wavering" class and a mistrusted "hostile" class. This Wednesday, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and AEI launched a new HRNK report entitled "Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System," and report author Robert Collins presented his findings. Collins elaborated on how this songbun status qualifies North Korean residents as for or against the regime, and stressed that it is used by the regime to control and repress the North Korean people by affecting every aspect of their lives, from nutrition and education to their jobs and housing.
Andrew Natsios of Georgetown University and HRNK listed evidence indicating that the Kim regime used the songbun system to deprive "hostile" citizens of food. He stressed the necessity of halting food aid sent through the North Korean Public Distribution System to alleviate the nourishment disparity.
Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute of International Economics and HRNK reinforced the HRNK report findings via evidence from his own survey of North Korean defectors. In his survey, although "core" class interviewees had less negative views of the Kim regime, they were nonetheless more likely to express dissatisfaction with the regime, which could indicate a central weakness in the regime's control.
All of the speakers agreed that this report is an important contribution to the growing knowledge on North Korea’s human rights violations.
The North Korean government assigns a “songbun” status to every citizen at birth based on the perceived political loyalty of his or her family going back generations. While a small, politically loyal class in North Korea is entitled to extensive privileges, the vast majority of citizens are relegated to a permanent lower status and then discriminated against for reasons they cannot control or change.
Although the international community often overlooks the songbun system in evaluating North Korea’s human rights record, it is at the base of human rights violations in the country. The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and AEI will be launching a new HRNK report entitled, “Marked For Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System,” which will be discussed at this event. The panel will also examine the extent to which the growing reliance on money and bribery is eroding the songbun system’s influence.
An art exhibit entitled "Three Names" by Il-kuk (Evan) Kim, a young North Korean defector, will also be on display at the event. The art exhibit explores the transformation of the artist's identity as he escaped from North Korea to South Korea and later relocated to the United States.
Robert Collins, Author of the Report, “Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System”
Andrew Natsios, Georgetown University and Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Marcus Noland, Peterson Institute of International Economics and Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Nicholas Eberstadt, AEI and Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Question and Answer Session
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Robert Collins, the author of the report, “Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System,” has lived and worked in South Korea for over three decades. He has met with and interviewed North Korean defectors and refugees since the 1970s. He is a 37-year-veteran of the U.S. Department of Defense, where he has analyzed North Korea and Northeast Asian security issues. After retiring, Collins continued conducting research on the Kim regime’s political structure, using Korean-language sources at major Korean libraries and think tanks, as well as interviews with over 75 North Korean refugees.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at AEI. He is also a senior adviser to the National Board of Asian Research, a member of the visiting committee at the Harvard University School of Public Health and a member of the Global Agenda Council at the World Economic Forum. He researches and writes extensively on demographics, economic development and international security. His books include “Policy and Economic Performance in Divided Korea during the Cold War Era: 1945-91” (AEI Press, 2010); “The Poverty of the Poverty Rate” (AEI Press, 2008); “The North Korean Economy: Between Crisis and Catastrophe” (Transaction Publishers, 2007) and “The End of North Korea” (AEI Press, 1999).
Andrew Natsios has been a faculty member at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University since 2006. From 2001 to 2006, he served as the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). During this period, he managed USAID’s reconstruction programs in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. President George W. Bush also appointed him Special Coordinator for International Disaster Assistance and Special Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan. Natsios later served as the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan from October 2006 to December 2007, before which he worked at USAID, first as the director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance from 1989 to 1991 and then as assistant administrator for the Bureau for Food and Humanitarian Assistance from 1991 to 1993. After serving 23 years in the U.S. Army Reserves as a civil affairs officer, Natsios retired in 1995 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He is a veteran of the Gulf War.
Marcus Noland, vice president and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute, has been associated with the think tank since 1985. He was a senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisers in the Executive Office of the President of the United States. He has held research or teaching positions at Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California, Tokyo University, Saitama University in Japan (now the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies), the University of Ghana, the Korea Development Institute and the East-West Center. He won the 2000 Ohira Memorial Award for his book “Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas” (Institute for International Economics, 2000). Noland is also the author of “Korea after Kim Jong-il” (Institute for International Economics, 2004), “Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform” (Columbia University Press, 2007) and numerous other books on Asian economic issues. Noland is also the editor of “Economic Integration of the Korean Peninsula” (Institute for International Economics 1998).