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Songbun system and human rights in N Korea

03 February 2023

Muhammad Muzahidul Islam :
Songbun is a socio-political classification system in North Korea. This system has been in operation in North Korea for a long time for dividing and grouping the people. It has been undermining the rights of North Koreans by putting them in an unequal position in respect of the state-sponsored benefits, facilities and opportunities. Has this Songbun system been in line withthe international human rights norms and standards, and the constitution of North Korea?
According to the Human Rights Watch, "the North Korean government first developed the songbun system between 1957 and 1960 as North Korean founder Kim-Il Sung consolidated power over what would become one of the world's most repressive states. The state used the system to isolate and purge Kim's enemies, real and perceived, and to reward his supporters.
Under Japanese rule, landowners, businessmen, intellectuals, and Koreans who worked for the colonial administrators occupied the top of the social hierarchy; farmers, factory workers, and laborers made up the lower classes. The creation of songbun turned this structure upside down. Kim created three groups-the "core," "wavering," and "hostile" classes-each of which contained a number of subcategories". And since then the songbun system has been in practice in North Korea.
The government of North Korea does not accept the allegations of the operation of the discriminatory songbun system in North Korea. Constitutional provisions of North Korea confirm the equality for all citizens; for example, article 65 of the North Korean constitution provides that 'citizens enjoy equal rights in all spheres of State and public activities'. However, UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on North Korea found the truthfulness of the allegations of practice of the songbun system, and published its report in 2014.
About the songbun system, paragraph 32 of the report of the COI stated that 'discrimination is rooted in the songbun system, which classifies people on the basis of State-assigned social class and birth, and also includes consideration of political opinions and religion. Songbun intersects with gender-based discrimination, which is equally pervasive'.
Paragraph 33 of the report of the COI further stated that 'the songbun system used to be the most important factor in determining where individuals were allowed to live; what sort of accommodation they had; what occupations they were assigned to; whether they were effectively able to attend school, in particular university; how much food they received; and even whom they might marry. This traditional discrimination under the songbun system was recently complicated by increasing marketization in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and by the influence of money, including foreign currency, on people's ability to have greater access their economic, social and cultural rights. At the same time, significant segments of the population who have neither the resources nor favourable songbun find themselves increasingly marginalized and subject to further patterns of discrimination, given that basic public services have collapsed or now effectively require payment'.
North Korea as a State signed and ratified several treaties and conventions including International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The Universal Declaration of human rights (UDHR), (ICESCR) and (ICCPR) are, together, known as the International Bill of Human Rights. Let us see the practice of songbun system through the lens of these legal provisions. Article 7 of UDHR provides that "all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination".
One could compare the North Korean songbun system with the African apartheid and would find the similarity between the two. 'Racial element' might be, sometimes, inseparable from the songbun system; members of the 'hostile' class might be, sometimes, deprived of the state-sponsored facilities and opportunities due to their South Korean or Japanese origin or link.
As per the decisions of the international courts the prohibition of racial discrimination has already attained the norms of jus cogens. And it does mean the derogation from which is not permitted, and it produces obligation ergaomnes to the international community. Let me cite here two relevant cases namely, the Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Company Limited (New Application: 1962, Belgium v. Spain, Second Phase, Judgment of 5 February 1970, para 34, International Court of Justice) and Advisory Opinion OC-26/20 (Inter-American Court of Human Rights, IACtHR, 9 November 2020) where protection from racial discrimination was recognized as obligation ergaomnes.
The Songbun system has not been in line with the international human rights norms and standards, andthe constitution of North Korea. The reality is that the chance of getting the state-sponsored best facilities and opportunities is very 'slim' for the members of the 'hostile' class whereas the same is very 'fat' for the members of the 'core' class.

(The writer is Barrister-at-Law, Human Rights Activist and an Advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh).

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