North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has called for another “arduous march” to fight severe economic difficulties, for the first time comparing them to a 1990s famine that killed hundreds of thousands.
Kim had previously said his nation faces its “worst-ever” situation due to several factors — including the COVID-19 pandemic, US-led sanctions and natural disasters in the summer last year — but it 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, but Kim’s comments still 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 ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) members on Thursday, the Korean Central News Agency reported.
“I made up my mind to ask the WPK organizations 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.
Kim’s speech came at the closing ceremony of a meeting with thousands of grassroots members of the ruling party, called cell secretaries.
During his opening speech on Tuesday, Kim said improving public livelihoods in the face of the “worst-ever situation” would depend on the party cells.
At 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 percent last year following North Korea’s border closure as part of stringent disease prevention measures during the pandemic.
Experts say North Korea has no other option because a major COVID-19 outbreak could have dire consequences for its broken healthcare system.
South Korean Ministry of Unification deputy spokesman Cha Deok-cheol yesterday told reporters that there are multiple signs that North Korea is taking steps to ease control on its border with China, including Pyongyang’s own reports that it has established new anti-virus facilities on the border and passed new laws on the disinfection of imported goods.
North Korea for years depended on international aid after the famine in the mid-1990s, which was precipitated by the loss of assistance from the Soviet Union, mismanagement and natural disasters.
The exact death toll is not clear, with some estimates putting it at 2 million to 3 million.
However, experts have said North Korea’s ongoing difficulties would not lead to famine because China will not 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 (習近平), North Korea’s state media said that Xi expressed a commitment to “provide the peoples of the two countries with [a] better life.”
Analysts saw it as an indication that China would soon provide North Korea with badly needed food, fertilizer and other supplies that had been significantly reduced amid the border closure.
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