This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea are warning residents to prepare for economic difficulties as bad as the 1994-1998 famine which killed millions, RFA has learned, but experts say the situation is dire, but not that extreme.
The 1990’s famine was the result of economic mismanagement and the sudden collapse of North Korea’s patron the Soviet Union. As much as 10 percent of the North Korean population lost their lives, according to some estimates, while hundreds of thousands of people fled to China.
The warning came as leader Kim Jong Un was quoted by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency as saying the country faced grim challenges.
“Improving the people’s living standards … even in the worst-ever situation in which we have to overcome unprecedentedly numerous challenges depends on the role played by the cells, the grassroots organizations of the party,” Kim said during an opening speech at a meeting of cell secretaries of the ruling Workers’ Party on Tuesday, KCNA reported.
Sources in the country’s northwestern North Hamgyong province told RFA that authorities warned residents during special discussion sessions hosted by neighborhood watch units to prepare for a situation worse than the “Arduous March,” North Korea’s official depiction of the famine a quarter century ago.
The current economic situation in North Korea is dire by most accounts. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Jan. 2020, Beijing and Pyongyang closed the entirety of the 880-mile Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade.
North Korea was already pinched by U.S. and UN nuclear sanctions, but the border closure killed a major part of North Korean commerce: the purchase and sale of imported Chinese goods. Economic activity in entire towns came to a full stop, leaving people with no way to support themselves.
U.N Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana warned in a report last month that the closure of the border and restrictions on the movement of people could bring on a “serious food crisis.”
“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,” said the report.
Sources told RFA that attendees at this week’s special discussion sessions expected that the government would tell them to stay the course and be patient as the plans laid out during the congress went into effect.
“Today, each district held a discussion session for the women of each neighborhood watch unit about the Eighth Party Congress… but they were all shocked when the speaker said, ‘our economic difficulties are only beginning,’ a resident of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service April 5.
“Most of the attendees were women who are responsible for the livelihood of their families. The speaker was an official of the Propaganda and Agitation department, who emphasized that our current economic difficulties pale in comparison for what lies ahead. How would these women feel?” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
At the Eighth Congress of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party held in Jan. 2020, Kim Jong Un pushed the country’s founding Juche ideology of self-reliance as the solution to economic troubles – indicating that there were no plans to open the border with China any time soon.
The source said a wave of anxiety spread among all the attendees when the speaker said that even the Arduous March was “nothing” compared to what lies ahead the country.
“Attendees began to panic, wondering how many would starve to death if the Arduous March, where millions of people died from hunger, was nothing,” the source said.
“The authorities have tried to push on us their propaganda that the lives of the people will be in ‘full bloom,’ referring to the full development of our style of socialism, but the residents are blaming the authorities, saying that the government has only prepared extreme hunger for us,” said the source.
Residents who lived through the 1990s famine were the most fearful of the news.
“They said we can’t just do nothing but starve to death if there is another Arduous March and vowed to come up with ways to stop it.”
Another source, also from North Hamgyong, confirmed the special discussion session to RFA on April 6.
“The speaker did not say a word about the improvement of the people’s lives like authorities had promised. Once again, they said we need to tighten our belts and carry out the decision of the Eighth Party Congress. This made the residents angry,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“They told us in the session to memorize and follow the directives laid out in the congress unconditionally, and to discuss them in a question-and-answer format. But as the session continued, the attendees were unable to hide their disappointment and resentment,” said the second source.
The attendees were furious that they were being asked to be patient and to consent to sacrifices without specific details on how this would get them through the tough situation, according to the second source.
“So now the people are all saying that a second Arduous March is imminent. On the surface, the authorities are saying that everything will be fine once the five-year economic development plan laid out in the party congress is completed,” said the second source.
“But since they are not hiding the fact that the current economic crisis could lead to a situation more difficult than the Arduous March of the 1990s, the anxiety of the people is increasing,”
International observers were skeptical that the current situation in North Korea was anything at all like the famine of the 1990’s.
“This is not the famine of 1996-97. There is barely adequate food supply, but not what North Korea hoped it would be. And I don’t see North Korea to be in the midst of a demonstrable health crisis about COVID,” Mark P. Barry, associate editor of the International Journal on World Peace quarterly, told RFA.
“Although things are very difficult economically and not good for food security, the greatest danger for North Korea is progressive loss of sovereignty through dependence on one country – China. This is an opportunity in the tenth year of Kim Jong Un’s leadership to not only internally strengthen his power but to reduce dangerously rising dependency on China,” Barry said.
Barry said that Kim had hoped to achieve economic independence from China by striking a deal with the U.S.
“Because [former U.S. President ]Trump left office without a deal Kim could accept and [U.S. President] Biden shows little promise to change long-held U.S. policy toward the DPRK regarding denuclearization, Kim is even willing to put his country through a possible second ‘Arduous March’ as a preferred alternative to succumbing to Chinese economic and political pressure,” said Barry.
Troy Stangarone of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute (KEI) said the situation was indeed dire in North Korea, but added that it was unclear if it was comparable to the 1990s.
“In the last month or two, trade between North Korea and China, its primary trade partner, and even Russia has either fallen to zero or fallen to levels so low that it is essentially nonexistent. We’ve seen indications that prices for goods are beginning to rise as food and other key items become scarcer,” Stangarone said.
“As long as North Korea continues to maintain these tight border controls, it’s very hard to see the situation improving and instead it’s most likely to continue to deteriorate,” he said.
Stangarone said Pyongyang would have a difficult time addressing the challenges ahead and recommended the government loosen border controls and more readily accept international aid.
The Arduous March was particularly devastating for North Korea’s children. At the end of the famine in 1998, a nutritional survey conducted by UNICEF and the World Food Program found that among children in 3,600 North Korean households, 62.3 percent were stunted, and 60.6 percent were considered moderately or severely underweight.
RFA reported in Nov. 2020 that a national literacy survey revealed that many of North Korea’s illiterate were of school age during the famine and could not attend school at the time. This led to fewer economic opportunities later in their lives.