North Korean leader Kim Jong-un urged citizens to prepare for the difficult times ahead, following warnings from human rights groups that the country faces severe food shortages and economic instability.
Speaking at a party conference, Mr Kim appeared to compare the situation to a deadly famine in the 1990s.
North Korea has closed its borders due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Trade with China, its economic lifeline, has stalled.
This is in addition to existing international economic sanctions on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
What did Kim say?
In a rare admission of impending hardship, the authoritarian one-party head of state on Thursday called on officials to “lead another more difficult ‘strenuous march’ in order to relieve our people of even a little difficulty.”
The Strenuous March is a term used by North Korean officials to refer to the country’s struggle during a devastating famine in the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union left North Korea without crucial help. It is estimated that around three million people died during this period.
“It’s not unusual for Kim Jong-un to talk about hardships and hardships, but this time the language is quite harsh and it’s different,” North Korean analyst Colin Zwirko told NK News, at the BBC.
“Last October, for example, he gave a speech in which he said he himself had failed to make enough changes. But explicitly mentioning that he had decided to lead another tough march. isn’t something he said before. “
Earlier this week, Kim warned the country was facing “the worst situation ever” and “unprecedented challenges”.
How serious is the situation?
There have been warnings for months that the North Korean people are in trouble.
Reports of difficulties seem to come in particular from towns close to the Chinese border, where smuggling has reportedly been a source of considerable income for many.
The price of corn, the staple diet of most rural North Korea, has reportedly fluctuated wildly, and sometimes a kilogram of corn has cost more than a month’s wages.
Lina Yoon, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher, said in a recent report citing anonymous contacts in the country that “there is virtually no food entering the country from China.”
“There are so many more beggars, some people have starved to death in the border area, and there is no soap, toothpaste, or batteries,” she wrote.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned last month in a report of a “serious food crisis” already leading to malnutrition and starvation.
“Starvation deaths have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and the elderly who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support themselves.”
It is not known if any help is currently arriving in the country. North Korea has rejected offers of foreign aid, and nearly all diplomats and aid workers, including United Nations World Food Program (WFP) staff, have left.
Meanwhile, the closure of North Korea’s borders means trade with China fell 80% last year from levels that had already dropped significantly in 2018 when the UN extended sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear program.
Reports suggest that North Korea restricted imports of staple foods from China last August, then cut almost all trade, including food and medicine, in October.
The country has also stepped up sanctions for smuggling, describing it as “anti-socialist” and “enemy” behavior, according to HRW.
Kim Jong-un builds support within his party as times get tough. He makes sure that the warnings come from him – perhaps so that when the going gets tough, he can point the finger at his officials for not acting on his orders.
He can also blame the disastrous economy on the Covid-19 pandemic and the strict economic sanctions designed to curb its nuclear weapons program.
And yet, his regime continues to design and test new missiles.
Weapon tests are something we can all see in satellite imagery and state media photos, and use them to quiz world leaders on how they’re going to act.
The North Korean people cannot send us images of their suffering without risking imprisonment or gunshot.
Invisible, and according to warnings on their own, they now face hunger amid a looming humanitarian crisis.
Why is North Korea in trouble?
Tightly controlled by the government, North Korea’s economy is one of the least free in the world and is reportedly highly inefficient.
The enormous cost of maintaining military and security structures has left very little for the ordinary North Korean.
There are indications Pyongyang is feeling pressure to at least reopen the borders a bit, Zwirko said.
“North Korea has shown signs of willingness to increase trade with China again. It passed a law a few months ago to facilitate border trade,” he said.
“But fundamentally North Korea remains extremely paranoid about the virus. They really should change and trust the ability to sanitize any passing product.”
North Korea claims that the border closure so far has kept it safe from Covid, although analysts doubt that claim.