North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for another “hard march” to tackle severe economic hardship, comparing it for the first time to a 1990s famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Kim had previously said his country was facing the “worst situation” due to several factors, including the coronavirus pandemic, US sanctions and natural disasters last summer. But this is the first time he has publicly drawn a parallel with the deadly famine.
North Korean watch groups have detected no signs of massive famine or humanitarian disaster. But Kim’s comments still suggest how seriously he considers the current difficulties – which foreign observers say are the biggest test of his nine-year reign.
“There are many obstacles and difficulties ahead of us, and therefore our struggle to implement the decisions of the Eighth Party Congress would not be entirely straightforward,” Kim told lower members of the ruling party on Thursday, according to the Korean Central News. Agency.
“I decided to ask the WPK (Workers’ Party of Korea) organizations at all levels, including its Central Committee and cell secretaries from all over the party, to lead another more difficult ‘strenuous march’ in order to relieve our people. of difficulty, even a little, ”Kim said.
Kim’s speech came at the closing ceremony of a party meeting with thousands of grassroots ruling party members, called cell secretaries.
During her opening speech on Tuesday, Kim said improving public livelihoods in the face of the “worst situation ever” would depend on party cells.
At the party convention in January, Kim ordered officials to build a stronger self-sufficient economy, reduce dependence on imports, and manufacture more consumer goods. But North Korea’s problems are the result of decades of mismanagement, self-imposed isolation and sanctions on its nuclear program, analysts say.
Chinese data shows that North Korea’s trade with China, its largest trading partner and aid benefactor, declined by around 80% last year following the closure of the northern border. Korean under strict pandemic measures.
Experts say North Korea has no other option as a major coronavirus outbreak could have dire consequences for its flawed health care system.
Cha Deok-cheol, deputy spokesperson for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, told reporters on Friday that there were multiple signs that North Korea was taking steps to ease border checks with China, including the North’s own reports that it has established new anti-virus facilities on the border and passed new laws on disinfection of imported goods.
North Korea depended for years on international aid after the famine of the mid-1990s, precipitated by loss of Soviet assistance, mismanagement and natural disasters. The exact death toll is unclear, varying from hundreds of thousands to 2 million to 3 million.
Some experts say North Korea’s current hardship won’t lead to famine because China won’t let it happen. They say China is worried about the flooding of North Korean refugees over the border or the establishment of a pro-American, unified Korea on its doorstep.
When Kim exchanged messages with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, North Korean state media said Xi was committed to “providing a better life for the people of both countries.”
Some analysts saw it as an indication that China would soon provide North Korea with much-needed food, fertilizer and other supplies that had been drastically reduced due to the pandemic border closure.