North Korea’s Communist Social Structure

by Alfio Cerami

Rev. 05/12/2017

Source: A photo taken released by North Korea’s official news agency shows soldiers celebrating the launch of the Hwasong-15 missile on Nov. 29. PHOTO: KCNA VIA KNS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES Novermber 29, 2017

The standard view on communist social stratification describes state-socialism as the most successful attempt to create a classless society. Did things really go in this way? Did state-socialism achieve its main objective to create a non-antagonist society, gradually withering differences away? This was, in reality, a myth as communist systems produced, voluntarily or not, new forms of social differentiation and exclusion1.

According to Slomczynsky (1994), social status can be measured on the basis of the relationship between education, occupation and income. In this context, the criteria of class differentiation in a central planned economy can be identified as:

  1. control over the utilization of the means of production; 
  2. immediate control over labor;
  3. the mental component of performed work (non-manual versus manual workers);
  4. production and nonproduction of work; and,
  5. ownership of the means of production.

On the basis of this conceptualization, while in the first period of communism there were three main classes –the working class, the intelligentsia and the peasantry. In the late 1960s, these classes became internally more differentiated resulting in the late stage of state-socialism in managers, first-line supervisors, experts and professionals, office workers, state-factory workers, service workers, petty bourgeoisie, farmers and private enterprise workers (Slomczynski and Mach 1997).

If we accept, as Davis and Moore (1994, p.39) suggest, “that the main functional necessity explaining the universal presence of stratification is precisely the requirement faced by any society of placing and motivating individual in the social structure”, then state-socialism was described as a non-antagonist and anti-meritocratic system. In the 1960s, for example, the wage differences in Czechoslovakia were reduced to the point that engineers and high skilled workers earned only 5 per cent more than unskilled workers (Lenski 1994). Social mobility also decreased significantly during communism (Kivinen 1994). This produced the undesired effect to limit work performance in absence of incentives, to produce stagnation or even regression of modernization (Machonin 1997).  

Put it differently, the systemic problems of Marxist societies are the results of their own inadequate arrangements in promoting an egalitarian society. Whilst the communist propaganda motto stated “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, in reality, it emphasizes “To each according to his/her needs, at the expenses of each with higher abilities”.

With regard to social inequality, defined by Lane (1971, p.13) as “the uneven distribution of goods and values among the population in the sense that one group may have more income or education than other”, the reasons for social inequality in USSR and in the states modelled on her has been perpetuated, firstly, by property relations, secondly, by the system of political power, thirdly, by the division of labor and, fourthly, by the human nuclear family (Lane 1971).

Data on communist social stratification have shown that the life chances and the possibility to go onto higher education were significantly higher among children of fathers in managerial or professional positions rather than of unskilled workers (Ferge 1997). Thus, as Ferge (1997, p.48) emphasizes, “the chain of social reproduction was not fully interrupted even by a system, which ideologically deadly set against it”.

In one of my previous blog posts (see here), I have defined North Korea as a State-Interfered Planned Market Economy in which military elites  and party bureaucrats not only capture resources but also redistribute benefits among the population.

Social stratification in contemporary North Korea, to some extent, resembles the one present in other communist societies, though some modifications are required. The are as follows:

  • the communist nomenklatura;
  • higher- and lower grade professionals, administrators and managers;
  • personnel employed in the industrial-military complex (including the scientists in the nuclear industry);
  • state-owned enterprise workers (including mine workers, factory workers, as well as higher and lower grade professionals, supervisors and managers);
  • farmers (including small proprietors and manual agricultural workers);
  • people employed in the public-private economy (including smallholders, people working in stalls, restaurants, artisans, etc.);
  • routine non-manual workers (e.g. lower and higher grade workers in commerce and services);
  • citizens working for foreign companies (especially Chinese companies);
  • informal jangmadang workers side by side to those employed in the formal General Markets;
  • the defectors;
  • the nouveaux riches (the Donju); and
  • The Mafias.

Increasing social differentitation in North Korea since Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un did not lead to increasing social modernization. Contemporary changes in the North Korean social structure reproduce, in fact, pre-existing elites privileges. They also reproduce old forms of state-bureacratic exploitation and co-optation, whilst creating new ones.

North Korean communist economy and public policies have still troubles with “luxury” products at disposal to the entire population, but not to the Donju (Pearson and Park 2015).

The Donju (nouveaux riches) are one of the new emerging social classes. They are people who held important positions in government, in foreign companies, in the emerging real estate sector (Pearson and Park 2015). Not rarely, they establish connections with The Mafias, especially those linked to the Chinese Mafias and, presumably, also The Russian Mafias (Mafija or Organizacija). These citizens are the only ones who can afford a wealthy lifestyle, including food, clothing, beverages and beautiful women.

North Korea’s textile industry, one of the leading export segments of the economy, is witnessing a slowdown due to the embargo. The colors of dresses are limited. People start to fear they will not be able to buy new clothes when the winter arrives (Daily NK 2017a).

Important to note is that the buyngjing political economy line (see blog posts here and here) has changed the traditional diet of North Koreans, lowering the availability of foods. The traditional diet of North Koreans included rice (including rice spaghetti) with soup or sauce, accompanied by beef, poultry, pork and vegetables. Today, because of food price increases, most people eat rice or another grain sometimes with sauce. What should be remembered is that North Korea needs to import a large quantity of foreign currency in order to feed its population (see FAO July 2017 Special Alert). The buyngjing line does not help to provide additional funding for imports and for price subsidies to basic goods, and it does not resolve the problem of anger. Dietary changes imply important lifestyle and societal changes, as war-related activities also do.



Davis, Kinsley and Wilbert E. Moore (1994), ‘Some Principles of Stratification’, in David B. Grusky, Social Stratification in Sociological Perspective: Class, Race and Gender, Oxford: Westview Press, pp. 39-46.

Ferge, Zsuzsa (1997), ‘Reflection on the old structures and the new’, Sisyphus. Social Structure in the Making, Vol. X (57-61), Warsaw: IFiS Publishers.

Kivinen, Markku (1994), ‘Class Relation in Russia’, in Timo Piirainen (ed), Change and Continuity in Eastern Europe, Aldershot: Dartmouth, pp.114-147.

Lane, David (1971), The End of Inequality? Stratification under State Socialism, Middlesex: Penguin.

Lenski, Gerhard (1994), ‘New Light on Old Issues: The Relevance of “Really Existing Socialist Societies” for Stratification Theory’, in David Grusky, Social Stratification: Class, Race and Gender in Sociological Perspective, Oxford: Westview Press, pp. 55-64.

Slomczynski, Kazimierz M. (1994), ‘Class and status in East European perspective’, in Matti Alestalo, The Transformation of Europe Social Conditions. Warsaw: IFIS Publishers.

Slomczynski, K. M. and B.W. Mach (1997), ‘Dissolution of the socialist working class’, in Sisyphus. Social Structure in the Making, Vol. X, Warsaw: IFiS Publishers, pp. 93-118.



1 Some parts of this article are based on Cerami, A. (2006), Social Policy in Central and Eastern Europe. The Emergence of a New European Welfare Regime, LIT Verlag: Münster, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, London.

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