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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a closing speech at the Sixth Conference of Cell Secretaries of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 8, 2021.
© 2021 Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
Speaking at a ruling Workers’ Party of Korea conference on Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was surprisingly candid about the country’s dire economic situation, calling on the country to “wage another more difficult ‘Arduous March’” – a propaganda term used in the 1990s during the country’s infamous famine.
Back then, the government refused to import food and stood by failed food distribution programs, all the while outlawing the very use of the term “famine” – hence the use of the term “Arduous March.” Kim appears to be saying the country should prepare for the very worst.
The famine killed a still-unknown number of people, with estimates ranging from between several hundred thousand to over two million. For people who lived through it, Kim’s words raise horrific memories of North Korea’s most difficult period since the Korean War.
“Everybody was so hungry, eating any wild greens, grass, and tree bark,” recalled a former party member in her 50s, whose parents died during the famine. “It was horrible. You would see dead bodies everywhere, in the streets, especially near the train stations. Dirty, pitch black, and skinny children that barely survived stealing food, most of whom also died. People who died weakened in their apartments were not found for days or weeks.”
Kim’s warning may be yet another attempt to take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to further tighten his grip on power. The 1990s famine not only killed multitudes but also undermined the government’s repressive rule, as survivors learned to evade food supply programs and set up their own illicit markets. Kim may be using the pandemic to take the country back to when there was an entirely closed border and very few imports. This allowed the government to completely control the distribution of food and supplies while also prohibiting the population from accessing any information not sanctioned by the government from inside or outside the country.
That is more than arduous. It is terrifying.