“Another new and more difficult ‘arduous march'”.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this week warned his citizens to prepare for extremely difficult times and apparently compared the situation to the devastating famine of 1990, in which an estimated hundreds of thousands of people died.
The Asian country faces its greatest moment of isolation in decades, after tighten border controls to prevent the entry of the coronavirus and suspend trade with China, its main supporter.
To this are added the international sanctions that weigh on the impoverished country, due to the development of its nuclear program.
What exactly did Kim say?
In unusual recognition of the difficulties the country is going through, Kim called on members of the ruling Workers’ Party to carry out “another new and more difficult ‘arduous march’ to relieve” the people of the difficulties.
The “arduous march” is a term used by North Korean officials to refer to the country’s difficulties during the famine of the 1990s, when the fall of the USSR stripped Pyongyang of crucial support. It is the campaign to which the regime appealed to face this period.
The total number of North Koreans who died of starvation is still unknown, but estimates go as high as 3 million.
“It is not unusual for Kim Jong-un to speak of hardship and adversity but in this case the language is quite harsh and that is different,” explained Colin Zwirko, North Korea’s senior analyst at the specialized outlet. NK News, a la BBC.
“Last October, for example, he gave a speech in which he said that he himself had failed to achieve sufficient change. But explicitly mentioning that he is willing to carry out a new ‘hard march’ is not something he has said before. “
Earlier in the week, Kim warned that the country faces “the worst situation to date” and “numerous unprecedented challenges.”
How serious is the situation?
For months, there have been various warnings that the North Korean population is experiencing difficulties, especially in areas near the border with China, where illicit trafficking is a great source of income for many.
The price of corn, a staple in much of rural North Korea, has fluctuated considerably and a kilogram of corn has cost more than the monthly salary, reported the specialized press in the country.
Lina Yoon, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), noted in a recent report, citing anonymous sources in the country, that “almost no food is entering the country from China.”
“There are many more beggars, some people starved to death in the border area, and there is no soap, toothpaste or batteries,” he wrote.
The UN rapporteur for the human rights situation in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned in a report last month of “a serious food crisis”, which was already leading to famine and malnutrition.
“Deaths from starvation have been reported, as well as the increase in the number of children and the elderly who have resorted to begging as families are unable to help them. “
It is unknown if any kind of aid is entering the country. North Korea has rejected foreign assistance and almost all diplomats and workers from international organizations and NGOs have left the territory.
The closure of borders due to the pandemic has caused trade with China –from which it obtains 90% of its imports– fell by 80% last year compared to the already low levels to which it had fallen in 2018 after the extension of the UN sanctions.
Human rights experts have also warned that Pyongyang is taking advantage of its isolation with the outside world to further strengthen its control over the population, for example, with the recent approval of a law that toughens penalties for the possession of foreign content or devices. (from music to series, phones or USB).
Analysis by Laura Bicker, BBC Seoul correspondent
Kim Jong-un is building support within the party as the situation worsens. You are making sure that warnings come directly from him: Perhaps so that when the situation worsens, you can point out the party officials for not having acted on your orders.
You can also attribute the blame for the dire economy to the covid-19 pandemic and strict economic sanctions designed to curb its nuclear weapons program.
Despite this, his regime continues to design and testing new missiles.
Weapons tests are something that we can all see in satellite images and photographs from the state press, and use them to question world leaders about how they are going to act. The North Korean population cannot provide us with images of their suffering without exposing yourself to risk to be imprisoned or executed.
Unseen, and on the warnings of their own leader, they now face starvation amid an impending humanitarian crisis.
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