Peace Time: Sex, Caste and Conscription in North Korea


May 22, 2023: North Korea is having increasingly visible problems with rape among conscripted soldiers. Nearly all North Korean men are conscripted for ten years while most women serve three years. Many of the young male conscripts would like some sex, the female conscripts just want to complete their three years and get on with their lives, including finding a husband. Life in the military for women is difficult. Food, health care and things like tampons are in short supply. Women serve in separate units, usually at headquarters or base areas. Since women serve for shorter periods and have access to more deferments, they account for about a fifth of military personnel.

Military commanders don’t pay much attention to sexual harassment or rape of female soldiers. That is changing after a series of gang-rapes occurred and were reported to the high command, where attention had to be paid because some of the victims were higher caste women whose parents had political influence and used it. It turned out that nearly a third of female conscripts had been raped while in the service and over 90 percent had suffered sexual harassment. As long as the victims were lower caste women, the military didn’t care but the higher-caste victims were another matter.

Social caste used to be important in North Korea. When the country was founded in the late 1940s, there were problems determining who was loyal to the new government and who was not or might not be. This led, in 1957, to the creation of a caste system called Songbun. This was an official list of 51 social classes in North Korea. Most (29) of these classes were composed of people considered either hostile to the government or leaning that way. These new lower classes included business people, the most successful farmers, professionals and, well, you get the picture. Most of the population falls into these 29 social classes, and they are getting increasingly hostile to a government that seems to do nothing but create one disaster after another and ignores things like their conscripted daughters being raped while in the military. This means a lot of lower caste people are hungry, the lower caste soldiers are hungry and the higher-caste secret police are stealing whatever they can get their hands on and the senior officials are planning their escape routes from the deteriorating economic mess. Since the 1990s caste, or the term Songbun, has faded from use. People either have power or they don’t. The donju are the best example of this and current leader Kim Jong Un came to power while in his 30s and eliminated a lot of the military and political leaders who came from the Songbun era. Social standing and the associated power still exist, just without the 1950s nomenclature and orthodoxy

The highest caste people, who have long come to regard themselves, optimistically, as a hereditary aristocracy, are growing more corrupt and fearful. Many of these high caste families do have talented people, but a lot of those selected for the top castes were chosen because they were loyal communists and willing to be brutal and do whatever they were told. Not the entrepreneurial type at all, which is why they are so wary of all these newly rich lower caste business people. Especially those with conscripted daughters who were raped and have parents using to their economic resources to get justice for their disgraced daughters.

Caste and sex have long been a factor in North Korea, where marriages are arranged and it’s usually between two people of the same, or similar, castes. Daughters, and many sons of the highest caste families are not conscripted at all. North Korean leader Kim Jon Un, for example, never served in the military and didn’t have to because he belonged to the highest caste of all.

In the last decade lower caste self-made men have changed things because desperate economic conditions led to the rise of successful, and often wealthy entrepreneurs. These newly rich lower caste business people (the “donju”) are increasingly throwing their economic weight around. There are rumors that many donju families will be offered a big boost in caste status if they can prove their loyalty by helping the state, or simply providing a large enough bribe or favor. Meanwhile higher caste families fear a major downgrade if any of their kin run afoul of the police or, worst of all, flee the country. There have been changes in family caste status before, but never on such a large scale as has occurred in the last few years and many suspect the aftereffects of the covid19 virus will feature even more culls in the ruling class as well as embarrassing revelations about the extent to which higher caste North Koreans misbehave.




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