North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called for another “arduous march” to be conducted to combat severe economic difficulties. For the first time they have been compared to a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands.
Kim previously said his country was facing the “worst” situation ever due to several factors, including the coronavirus pandemic, US-led sanctions and natural disasters last summer. But it is the first time that he publicly draws parallel to the fatal famine.
North Korea surveillance groups have found no signs of mass starvation or humanitarian disaster. However, Kim’s comments still suggest how seriously he takes the current troubles – which, according to overseas observers, is the greatest test of his nine-year reign.
“We face many obstacles and difficulties and our struggle to implement the decisions of the 8th Congress would not be easy,” Kim told members of the ruling subordinate party on Thursday, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
“I have made up my mind to ask the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) organizations at all levels, including the Central Committee and cell secretaries of the entire party, to lead another tougher ‘arduous march’ to relieve our people the difficulty, even a little, “said Kim.
Kim’s speech took place at the closing ceremony of a party conference with thousands of grassroots members of the ruling party known as cell secretaries.
During his opening speech on Tuesday, Kim said that improving the public’s livelihood in the face of “the worst situation ever” would depend on the party cells.
During the January party convention, Kim ordered officials to build a stronger self-sustaining economy, reduce reliance on imports, and manufacture more consumer goods. North Korea’s problems, however, are the result of decades of mismanagement, self-imposed isolation and sanctions against its nuclear program, analysts say.
Chinese data shows North Korea’s trade with China, its largest trading partner and benefactor, shrank by about 80 percent last year after the North Korean border was closed as part of severe pandemic measures.
Experts say North Korea has no other option as a major coronavirus outbreak could have dire consequences for its broken healthcare system.
South Korean unification ministry deputy spokesman Cha Deok-cheol told reporters on Friday that there are several signs that North Korea is taking steps to ease controls on its border with China, including the north’s own reports that new anti-virus Facilities were set up across the border and passed new laws to disinfect imported goods.
North Korea relied on international aid for years after the famine in the mid-1990s caused by the loss of Soviet aid, mismanagement and natural disasters. The exact death toll is not clear and varies between hundreds of thousands, 2 million and 3 million.
Some experts say North Korea’s ongoing troubles will not result in famine as China will not allow it. They say China is concerned about the inundation of North Korean refugees across the border or the creation of a pro-US, united Korea on its doorstep.
When Kim exchanged news with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, North Korean state media said Xi was committed to “making better lives for the peoples of both countries.”
Some analysts saw this as an indication that China would soon be supplying North Korea with much-needed food, fertilizers and other supplies that had been significantly reduced in the wake of the pandemic border closings.