Eventually, most grow to understand and accept its power, but they rarely have more than a general idea of where they fit into the pecking order, experts said. In a country where secrecy is reflexive, the state simply denies it exists.
"This is all nonsense!" a North Korean government minder said, interrupting a visiting American journalist when he tried to ask a woman about her family's songbun. "People make up lies about my country!"
Certainly, few ordinary North Koreans understand the staggering and sometimes shifting complexities of songbun, which at its core divided the entire population into three main categories — "core," ''wavering" and "hostile" classes — and subdivided those into some four dozen subcategories.
North Koreans with songbun good enough for the top jobs will still likely get minimal salaries, but perks for the elite could include a good apartment in Pyongyang, regular electricity, access to quality medical clinics and easier admission to top schools for their children. In a culture where parents have immense influence over the choice of their children's spouses, high-songbun partners are prized.
But to be caught at the bottom, defectors say, is to be lost in a nightmare of bloodline and bureaucracy.
"My family was in the lowest of the lowest level," said a former North Korean coal miner who fled to South Korea in 2006, hoping to give his young sons opportunities outside the mines. "Someone from the state was always watching what we were saying, watching what we were doing ... The state treated us as if they were doing us a favor simply by allowing us to live."
The man, like other North Korean refugees interviewed for this story, spoke on condition he not be named, fearing that relatives still in the North would be punished.
When he was a boy he had hoped to be a doctor, or perhaps a government official. He was a top student, he says. But when colleges kept rejecting him, his father finally told him the truth: His father, it turned out, had been born in South Korea, served in its army and been taken prisoner during the Korean War. Like thousands of other southern POWs, he disappeared into the North's prison gulag, and then was forced into the coal mines.
With songbun like that, his choices were few. He would never become a government official. Getting into college, and perhaps eventually landing nonpolitical work, would have required impossibly large bribes. North Korea's growing network of small informal markets, a path out of desperate poverty for some, had yet to arrive in his village, deep in the countryside.
"I couldn't live my dreams because of my father," said the thin, ropy man, with the biceps of someone who spent 17 years swinging a pick deep underground.
But while North Korea is often portrayed as a Soviet throwback stranded in the 1950s, a reputation it earned with decades of isolation and single-family rule, strains of change do ripple beneath its Stalinist exterior. That has created a complex and uneasy relationship between songbun and wealth.
Most North Koreans have never met a foreigner, seen the Internet, or earned more than a couple hundred dollars a month — but those in a growing economic elite now fly to Beijing and Singapore to shop. It's a country where human rights groups say well over 100,000 political prisoners are held in a series of isolated prison camps, but where an exclusive European firm, Kempinski, hopes to be running a hotel soon.
The market economy first took hold during the rule of Kim Jong Il, the son of the nation's founder, who ran the country from the 1990s until his death in late 2011, when his son then took control. In the mid-1990s, poor harvests and the end of Soviet assistance lead to widespread famine.
Official controls relaxed as hunger tore at the country.
Reluctantly, the government allowed the establishment of informal markets, with ordinary people setting up stalls to sell food, clothes or cheap consumer goods. Since then, the government has alternately allowed the markets to flourish and cracked down on them, leaving many people working in legally gray areas. At the same time, state-sanctioned trade has also blossomed, much of it mineral exports to China.
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