North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has called for another “arduous march” against severe economic difficulties, appearing to compare the situation to a 1990s famine during which hundreds of thousands of people died.
Kim had previously said his country faces the “worst-ever” situation due to factors including the coronavirus pandemic, US-led sanctions and natural disasters, but this is the first time he has publicly drawn a parallel with the deadly famine.
North Korea monitoring groups have not detected any signs of mass starvation or a humanitarian disaster. However, Kim’s comments suggest how seriously he views the current difficulties – which foreign observers say are the biggest test of his nine-year rule.
“There are many obstacles and difficulties ahead of us, and so our struggle for carrying out the decisions of the Eighth Party Congress would not be all plain sailing,” Kim told lower-level ruling party members on Thursday, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
“I made up my mind to ask the WPK (Workers’ Party of Korea) organisations at all levels, including its Central Committee and the cell secretaries of the entire party, to wage another more difficult ‘arduous march’ in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little,” Kim said.
‘“Arduous march” is a term North Korea officials used to refer to the 1990s famine that saw the country depend for years on international aid. It was precipitated by the loss of Soviet assistance, mismanagement and natural disasters. The exact death toll isn’t clear, varying from hundreds of thousands to 2 million to 3 million.
Kim made his speech at the closing ceremony of a party meeting with thousands of grassroots members of the ruling party, called cell secretaries. During his opening day speech, Tuesday, Kim said improving public livelihoods in the face of the “worst-ever situation” would depend on the party cells.
During a party congress in January, Kim ordered officials to build a stronger self-supporting economy, reduce reliance on imports and make more consumer goods. But North Korea’s problems are the result of decades of mismanagement, self-imposed isolation and sanctions over its nuclear program, analysts say.
Chinese data show North Korea’s trade with China, its biggest trading partner and aid benefactor, shrank by about 80% last year following North Korea’s border closure as part of stringent pandemic measures.
Experts say North Korea has no other option because a major coronavirus outbreak could have dire consequences on its broken health care system.
Cha Deok-cheol, deputy spokesman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said on Friday there were multiple signs that North Korea was taking steps to ease controls on its border with China, including the North’s own reports that it established new anti-virus facilities on the border and passed new laws on the disinfection of imported goods.
Some experts say North Korea’s ongoing difficulties will not lead to famine because China won’t let that happen. They say China worries about North Korean refugees flooding over the border or the establishment of a pro-US, unified Korea on its doorstep.
When Kim last month exchanged messages with Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korea’s state media said Xi expressed a commitment to “provide the peoples of the two countries with better life”. Some analysts saw it as an indication that China would soon provide North Korea with badly needed food, fertiliser and other supplies that had been significantly reduced amid the pandemic border closures.