One of the unique features of the Kim family’s North Korea was a reemergence of hereditary groups, each one having a clearly defined set of privileges and restrictions. In this regard, North Korea is surprisingly reminiscent of a premodern society, with its order of fixed and hereditary castes (or “estates” as they were sometimes known in premodern Europe).

Starting from 1957, state authorities began to conduct checks on the family backgrounds of every North Korean. This massive project was completed by the mid-1960s and led to the emergence of what is essentially a caste system. This system is known to the North Koreans as songbun. According to the songbun system, every North Korean belongs to one of three strata: “loyal,” “wavering,” or “hostile.” In most cases, people are classified in accordance to what the person or his/her direct male ancestors did in the 1940s through the early 1950s.

In the 1990s, much of this changed.

First, in 1991, came the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it, the loss of the economic support that it had provided North Korea as one of Pyongyang's major funders. Then, between 1994 and 1997, came droughts and floods that crippled agricultural production and compounded the difficulties caused by the regime’s long-standing mismanagement of the North Korean economy, driving the country into crisis. Hospitals exhausted their supplies of medicine, and as electricity and gas ran out, factories stopped working. North Korea’s distribution system for food and other essentials fell apart.

Lacking the money to import enough food from abroad, the regime redirected scarce rations to North Koreans with good songbun, such as party officials and members of the military; many students abandoned their studies to help their families find food. Famine meant that many North Koreans employed by the state had to start making money on the side to support themselves. Market activities were still illegal, but over the course of the famine, the regime relaxed the enforcement of official controls on private commerce, and many North Koreans began to trade on the gray market.

In 2003, the regime went a step further, allowing some government-sanctioned markets to open up. As ordinary North Koreans began to earn more money, many of them realized that by paying bribes to the right officials, they could access some of the privileges that had until then been reserved for those with high songbun, such as party membership. And as a culture of corruption took hold, North Koreans began to buy privileges that did not exist before the famine for almost anyone: impunity for crimes and permission to travel to other provinces, for example. All of this complicated the songbun system by allowing lower-class North Koreans to use private wealth and personal connections to access the markers of social status.

Photos by Stephen Gladieu
Owner of SCHOOL GALLERY, Paris: ARTCO GALLERY, Germany, Cape Town, Joshua Tree