This article argues that North Korea’s system for family background registration, sŏngbun, 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 sŏngbun 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 state-building. Although some citizens manipulated the process to their benefit, several interviewees attested to worse outcomes due to bureaucratic mistakes and reinvestigations of their sŏngbun by the state.

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