The “hostile class” included people whose ancestors in or around 1945 were engaged in activities that were not to the regime’s liking. Among others, this group included descendants of clerks in the Japanese colonial administration, Christian activists, female shamans, entrepreneurs, and defectors to the South. Members of the hostile class faced the greatest number of restrictions: They could not live in Pyongyang or other major cities and they could not be admitted to good colleges or universities. People whose songbun was exceptionally bad would not even be drafted into the military.
Members of the “core class” included those whose direct male ancestors contributed toward the foundation and strengthening of the Kim family regime. They were descendants of anti-Japanese guerrillas, heroes of the Korean War, or party bureaucrats. For all practical purposes, over the past half-century, only these people could be promoted to key positions in the North Korean state and party bureaucracy. They constituted the hereditary elite.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and hence the end of subsidies for the North Korean regime, market activity has sprung a million tiny shoots all over the place.
To survive, the North Korean people literally rediscovered capitalism. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that over the past 10-15 years, the average North Korean family has come to draw most of its income from what can be described as black-market activities. Actually the so-called black market is not particularly black, since the government – in spite of occasional crackdowns – has tacitly tolerated its existence since the mid-1990s. Nowadays North Koreans work on individual fields on steep mountain slopes, they establish private workshops to produce garments and assorted consumer goods, and they smuggle and trade.
A society where status is based on money seems preferable to me over a society where status is based on things one’s grandparents or great-grandparents did.