Social (Im)mobility and Bureaucratic Failings: Family Background and the Songbun System in North Korea

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article argues that North Korea's system for family background registration, songbun, has historically been more complex than commonly believed. Using oral testimonies, it shows that the registration process, as seen from a grassroots perspective, involved and likely still involves a great deal of social turmoil. The essay focuses on the period before the famine of the 1990s, often not sufficiently investigated in scholarship on North Korean society. The songbun registration process, by contrast, constitutes a chaotic, messy chapter in North Korean social history, calling the narrative of stability into question. The article also situates North Korea in the broader history of state-building, showing that attempts by states to classify the population and make it legible often involve a great deal of chaos, flaws, and dynamic change. Cataloging the population along the lines of political order was not merely a project of sheer repression but also one of scientific, rational, and forward-looking statebuilding. Although some citizens manipulated the process to their benefit, several interviewees attested to worse outcomes due to bureaucratic mistakes and reinvestigations of their songbun by the state.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111-137
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Korean Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2023


  • North Korea
  • oral history
  • social history
  • songbun
  • state-building


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