North Korean leader Kim Jong Un calls for another strenuous march to combat severe economic hardship, comparing them for the first time to the famine of the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands
SEOUL, South Korea – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called for another “hard march” to fight severe economic hardship, comparing them for the first time to the famine of the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands.
North Korean monitoring groups found no signs of mass famine or humanitarian catastrophe. But Kim’s comments continue to suggest how serious he is about 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, so our struggle to enforce the decisions of the party’s Eighth Congress would hardly be fruitful,” Kim told members of the ruling lower-level party on Thursday, the Korean Central News Agency reported.
“I have decided to ask the WPK (Korean Workers’ Party) at all levels, including its Central Committee and party secretaries throughout the party, to lead another difficult ‘hard march’ to relieve our people of difficulties, even a little,” Kim said. .
The term “hard march” is a euphemism used by North Koreans to describe the fighting during the famine of the 1990s, which was accelerated by the loss of Soviet aid, decades of mismanagement and natural disasters. The exact number of dead is not clear and ranged from hundreds of thousands to 2 million to 3 million, and North Korea has depended on international aid to feed its people for years.
Kim’s speech followed a closing ceremony for a party meeting with thousands of members at the local level, called cell secretaries. During his opening speech Tuesday, Kim said improving livelihoods in the event of a “worst-ever situation” would depend on party cells.
During the party’s congress in January, Kim instructed officials to build a stronger self-sustaining economy, reduce reliance on imports and make more consumer goods. But analysts are skeptical of Kim’s onslaught, saying the North’s problems are the result of poor governance, self-imposed isolation and sanctions over its nuclear program.
Chinese data show that North Korea’s trade with China, its largest trading partner and aid benefactor, fell by about 80% last year after the closure of the North Korean border as part of severe pandemic measures.
Experts say North Korea has no other option because a major coronavirus epidemic could have dire consequences on its broken health care system.
Cha Deok-cheol, a deputy spokesman for South Korea’s unification ministry, told reporters Friday that there were several signs that North Korea was taking steps to ease control at its border with China, including North’s own reports that it had set up new antivirus facilities at the border and passed new laws on disinfection of imported goods.
Some experts say North Korea’s ongoing difficulties will not lead to famine because China does not allow it. They say China is worried about flooding North Korean refugees across the border or establishing a pro-American, united Korea on its doorstep.
When Kim exchanged messages with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, North Korean state media said Xi had expressed a commitment to “enable a better life for the peoples of the two countries.” Some analysts saw this as an indication that China would soon provide North Korea with much-needed food, fertilizer and other supplies that had been significantly reduced due to the closure of the border pandemic.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.