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Freedom Collection

Interviews with Kim Seong Min

Interviewed April 23, 2024

Other defectors might tell you a different story since they’re more knowledgeable about the songbun system, but I actually have a different perspective. Because I was part of the military, I do not have professional knowledge of how this system operates in North Korea. I did hear defectors who were part of the North Korean police or the Workers’ Party explain that the social class is divided into over 30 castes. Your life can be determined according to your designated caste.

[Songbun is a system used by the North Korean regime to classify citizens’ attitudes toward the regime as core, wavering, or hostile. An individual’s songbun status is influenced by his family’s status and helps determine career prospects, housing and even access to food. The Workers’ Party of Korea is the communist party that has run North Korea since the state was established in 1948.]

North Korea does not have to be divided into such detailed social classes. I think of North Korea as being divided into two classes. The first class is the leadership class. This includes people from the past who were involved in communist activities under Kim Il Sung.

Also, those who were close to Kim Jong Il, for instance, if you went to school with him, if you have shown unquestioned loyalty or if you were a very close aid to his father.

[Kim Il Sung (1912 – 1994) was the founder and leader of the North Korean state from 1948 until his death in 1994. Kim Jong Il (1941 – 2011) succeeded his father and led North Korea from 1994 until his death in 2011.]

The second group is slaves of the dictator. People who are required to express obedience towards the leader.

Mr. Hwang Jang Yup explained that many people approached him asking why he decided to defect if he was a part of the senior leadership and favored by Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. He would be asked if he was there to have control over them in any way.

His answer was, “I was no different in that I was a slave of the regime as well. The only difference between you and me is that I was an elite slave and you were an ordinary slave.”

[Hwang Jang Yup (1923 –2010) served as the secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and was regarded as the architect of North Korea´s “juche” philosophy of self-reliance. He defected from North Korea in 1997.]