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Kim Seong Min was born in 1962. He grew up and received his education in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim is the son of a poet and was trained as a writer. After serving ten years in the military, he worked in one of the regime’s propaganda offices. Troubled by the society in which he lived, Kim escaped to China in 1997. He eventually arrived in Seoul, South Korea in 1999, and ever since has fought for the liberation and democratization of his homeland.

In 2004, Kim established Free North Korea Radio (FNKR) to broadcast messages about freedom to those being oppressed and exploited by the regime in Pyongyang. These tireless efforts have been recognized by several international awards, including the “Prize for Press Freedom” from Reporters Without Borders and the “Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award” from the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. Recently, Kim was elected as a Representative of the Coalition to Promote the Democratization of North Korea, an alliance of North Korean defector organizations based in South Korea.

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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.] 

North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 23 million people in northeast Asia, ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of “Eternal President” and “The Great Leader.”

The Korean War began in 1950, when Kim Il-Sung, backed by the Soviet Union and China, attacked South Korea. The conflict ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, and the border between the two Koreas remains tense and heavily militarized.

Kim Il-Sung employed harsh tactics to consolidate his power and propagated an extreme personality cult that has been continued by his successors. A blend of communist doctrine, state terror, xenophobia and hyper-nationalism has given North Korea its unique ideology. Despite some recent openings, North Korea remains largely isolated from the rest of the world.

With the end of Soviet communism and withdrawal of economic support, North Korea’s economy collapsed in the 1990s. A massive famine, aggravated by the regime’s indifference, killed as many as 2 million people between 1994 and 1998. While conditions have improved, even today, North Korea faces problems of malnutrition and insufficient access to food.

Tensions between North and South Korea remain high. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors and attacked a South Korean island, killing four civilians. North Korea has developed and tested nuclear weapons in contravention of several international agreements. The country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 in order to test ballistic missiles and eventually a nuclear device. Multilateral negotiations have so far failed to constrain North Korea’s arms buildup and nuclear program.

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states, engaging in widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced abortion, arbitrary detention, and denial of the rights of expression, association, assembly, and religion. The government pervasively regulates all aspects of the lives of its citizens, each of whom is categorized as “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile,” according to the history of his or her family’s relationship with the regime. Access to housing, employment, education, and other social and economic goods depend heavily on these security classifications. The government determines where each citizen will live, and travel within the country is strictly limited.

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed. The government operates a network of forced labor camps for an estimated 120,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely. Punishment is extended to three generations – the offender’s parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform. Political offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report classifies North Korea as “not free” and as one of nine nations whose lack of political rights and civil liberties are considered the “worst of the worst.”


More on this theme from Kim Seong Min

Kim Seong Min: Songbun “Your life can be determined according to your designated caste.” Kim Seong Min: Why I Became a Dissident Mr. Kim describes his background and decision to leave North Korea.

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