Kim compares North Korea’s current economic woes to searing 1990s famine

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech Thursday in Pyongyang, the capital.
(Korean Central News Agency)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called for waging another “arduous march” to fight his country’s severe economic difficulties, comparing them for the first time to a searing 1990s famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Kim had previously said his country faces its “worst-ever” situation because of several factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S.-led sanctions and heavy flooding last summer. North Korea monitoring groups haven’t detected any signs of mass starvation or a humanitarian disaster, but publicly drawing a parallel with the deadly famine is an indication of how seriously Kim views 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, and so our struggle for carrying out the decisions of the Eighth Party Congress would not be all plain sailing,” Kim told lower-level ruling party members Thursday, according to the Korean Central News Agency.


“I made up my mind to ask the WPK [Workers’ Party of Korea] organizations at all levels, including its Central Committee and the cell secretaries of the entire party, to wage another more difficult ‘arduous march’ in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little,” Kim said.

The term “arduous march” is a euphemism that North Koreans use to describe the struggles during the 1990s famine, which was precipitated by the loss of Soviet assistance, decades of mismanagement and natural disasters. The exact death toll isn’t clear, varying from hundreds of thousands to 2 million to 3 million people, and North Korea depended on international aid for years to feed its people.

Kim’s speech came at the closing ceremony of a party meeting with thousands of grass-roots members, called cell secretaries. During his opening-day speech Tuesday, Kim said improving livelihoods in the face of the “worst-ever situation” would depend on the party cells.

After declaring three years ago that his country had fulfilled its decades-long ambition to become a nuclear power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned his attention to fixing an ailing economy that was undermining his pledge to better the lives of his people.

During the party congress in January, Kim ordered officials to build a stronger self-supporting economy, reduce reliance on imports and make more consumer goods. But analysts are skeptical of Kim’s push, saying North Korea’s problems are the result of poor management, self-imposed isolation and sanctions over his nuclear program.

Chinese data show that North Korea’s trade with China, its biggest trading partner and aid benefactor, shrank by about 80% last year following North Korea’s border closure as part of stringent pandemic measures.

Experts say North Korea has no other option because a major coronavirus outbreak could have dire consequences on its broken healthcare system.

Cha Deok-cheol, deputy spokesman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, told reporters Friday that there are multiple signs that the North is taking steps to ease the closing of its border with China, including the North’s own reports that it established new anti-virus facilities on the border and passed new laws on the disinfection of imported goods.

Tens of thousands of North Korean women have been trafficked into forced marriages in China and give birth to stateless children. The mothers face a fraught choice between their children or their freedom, a choice that continues to haunt many.

Some experts say North Korea’s ongoing difficulties will not lead to famine because China won’t let that happen. They say China worries about large numbers of North Korean refugees crossing the border or the establishment of a pro-U.S., unified Korea on its doorstep.

When Kim last month exchanged messages with Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korea’s state media said Xi expressed a commitment to “provide the peoples of the two countries with better life.” Some analysts saw it as an indication that China would soon provide North Korea with badly needed food, fertilizer and other supplies that had been significantly reduced amid the border closure.