North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has told citizens to prepare for hard times ahead, after rights groups issued warnings that the country faces severe food shortages and economic instability.
Speaking at a party conference, Mr. Kim on Thursday called on officials to “wage another, more difficult ‘Arduous March’ in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little”, in a rare admission of a looming hardship.
The Arduous March is a term used by North Korea officials to refer to the country’s struggle during the 1990s famine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, where an estimated three million died from starvation.
“It is not unusual for Kim Jong-un to talk about difficulties and hardship but this time the language is quite stark and that’s different,” Colin Zwirko, North Korea analyst at NK News, told the BBC.
“Last October for instance, he gave a speech where he said that he himself failed to bring about enough changes. But mentioning explicitly that he’s decided to carry out a new Arduous March is not something he has said before.”
Earlier this week, Mr. Kim had warned the country faced the “worst-ever situation” and “unprecedentedly numerous challenges”.
There have been warnings for months that the people of North Korea are struggling and reports of hardship appear to be coming especially from towns near the Chinese border, where smuggling would have been a huge earner for many.
The price of corn, the staple diet for most of rural North Korea, has reportedly fluctuated enormously and at times a kilogram of corn has cost more than a month’s wages.
Lina Yoon, a researcher from Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a recent report citing unnamed contacts in the country that “there is barely any food going into the country from China”.
“There are so many more beggars, some people died from hunger in the border area, and there’s no soap, toothpaste, or batteries,” she wrote.
The UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned last month in a report of a “serious food crisis” already leading to malnourishment and starvation.
“Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them.”
It is unclear whether any aid at all is currently coming into the country. North Korea has rejected offers of external aid and almost all diplomats and aid workers, including staff of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), have left.
Meanwhile North Korea’s border closures means trade with China dropped by 80% last year from levels that had already fallen significantly in 2018 when the UN expanded sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Reports suggest North Korea restricted imports of staple foods from China last August and then cut almost all trade, including food and medicines, in October.
The country has also ramped up punishments for smuggling, describing it as “anti-socialist” and “enemy” behaviour, according to HRW.
Tightly controlled by the government, North Korea’s economy is one of the least free in the world and is said to be highly inefficient while the enormous cost of maintaining the military and security structures has left very little for the ordinary North Korean. (Source: BBC)