In mid-April 2021, not only anti-Pyongyang propaganda, but also the relatively neutral media were seriously concerned about the collapse of the DPRK’s economic system and imminent famine. The formal basis for this was the following statement by Kim Jong-un:
“I have decided that all Party organizations, beginning with the Central Committee, and the secretaries of Party cells of the entire Party, will undergo an even harsher ‘Arduous March’ in order to provide maximum material and cultural welfare and at least a little relief for our people, who believe in and follow our Party as a Mother Party, who have suffered for decades to defend their Party.”
The phrase was quickly reinterpreted as “Kim said that the country is in for a new ‘Arduous March’: that’s what they call the terrible famine of the nineties.” Or “Kim warned the cell secretaries to prepare for many obstacles and difficulties, pointing to the harsh period of the Arduous March in the 1990s, when the country suffered from extreme poverty and mass starvation”.
Then, commentators started looking for confirmation of this thesis: of course, the DPRK is on the verge of collapse, because the totalitarian system surely cannot bear the combination of sanctions and the consequences of self-isolation due to “emergency anti-epidemic measures”: in August 2020 at a meeting of the Political Bureau of the WPK, Kim Jong-un said that despite the serious damage from the floods, the country will not accept any foreign aid. They also recalled the defection of diplomats, reasoning that if foreign diplomats were facing empty shelves, then what was left for the local population?
There are two points that need to be clarified in this regard. The first is what Kim Jong-un had in mind when he mentioned the “Arduous March.” And the second is the extent to which the combination of economic sanctions and self-isolation caused by the pandemic could lead to a collapse of the economic system and a situation similar to the famine of the 1990s.
Let’s start with the context of the quote. Kim delivered this passage at the closing ceremony of the 6th Congress of Secretaries of cells of the Workers’ Party of Korea. This event in itself is quite interesting because, unlike at a party congress, there the leader of the party and the state speaks to those who basically implement party policy at the level closest to the masses. Kim’s challenges to them are quite substantial given the difficult situation of the country. He speaks of the need to turn party cells into tightly knit work collectives, which would thus become bricks in the foundation of the process of strengthening the Party as a whole. Continuing the line he laid out at the 8th Congress of the WPK, Kim seeks to turn the party into a moral vanguard and a thriving working body, as the particularities of the North Korean regime make party organizations the main pillar of the system.
Kim understands well enough that the existence of a state where the WPK is the core and backbone of it depends largely on the extent, to which the party is enjoying the trust of the people and fulfilling its duties, including that of moral vanguard. Ever since 2014, Kim has repeatedly suggested that the state will only be successful if the people cry out “Long live the WPK!” not just at party meetings when they are expected to do so, but always, from the depths of their hearts and souls. This will only ever happen when the Party workers decide to push on tirelessly for the good of the masses.
Kim believes that Party workers should lead by example, and if they fail to do so, the people will lose confidence in the Party, inevitably plunging the country into crisis. To recall Kim’s remarks at the WPK’s 75th anniversary in October 2020 or at its 8th Congress in January 2021, he always drives just one point: Party members must always be ready for change and willing to endure hardships.
The precarious situation calls for emergency measures, and Kim is actively trying to shake the party up so that the cadres enjoy not only privileges of their positions, but also the responsibilities that go with them. And so he says: “It may be that it is you, fellow Party secretaries, who will have to go through heartaches alone and overcome the harsh trails more so than anyone else.” In Kim’s opinion, “secretaries of Party cells always live among the masses, and their words and deeds, acting immediately on the people’s psyche, have a great influence over them.” That is why “they should be paragons of honesty and always be the first to take on the hard work.”
Of course, not every secretary of a Party committee is an ideal worker from the posters, yet the DPRK leader stresses: “Our party owes its strength and resilience not to the General Secretary or the Political Bureau, but directly to the Party cells,” and, in fact, it is the way a secretary, not particularly different from ordinary people, behaves that determines the confidence of the people. He sets 10 key objectives before the cells, calling on the secretaries to patiently foster their members as fighters, utterly devoted to the Party.
In some ways, Kim’s speech was like that of a motivational speaker: “there are many difficulties and obstacles on our way, the struggle will not be easy, but we believe in you, even though you have much hard work ahead of you”.
Taken out of context, it would appear that Kim is talking about hard times to come. But if one were not to rip the passage out of the speech and consider it in the context of Kim Jong-un’s other speeches on the composite subjects, it becomes clear that by the “Arduous March” he means a tightening of demands and an increase in the burden not of the whole people, but only of the party cadres.
And this is not just the author’s conclusion. The fact that Kim’s call “seems to be aimed at strengthening discipline among party officials,” is also pointed out by Deputy Spokesman Cha Dok Chul of South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Kim Dong-yeop, a professor at Gyeongnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, also believes that with this passage “Kim sought to tighten the discipline of cell secretaries in trying times.” However, most of the commentators on this news most likely did not read the entire speech and dealt only with the paragraph in question.
To add to the confusion, there is a miscommunication of context with respect to the term of the “Arduous March” itself. Among Western specialists, it is the actual period of starvation that is referred to as the “Arduous March,” a fairly common phenomenon. See, for instance, this September 4, 2020 NK News article where the authors speculate that North Korea could be on the verge of another “Arduous March” as a result of a combination of sanctions, floods, pandemics, and so forth.
But while to the Western viewer the word “Arduous March” is a euphemism for the collapse of the economic system and the subsequent famine, in the political language of North Korea it means a period of epic hardship that, through hard work and loyalty to the Juche idea, the country, though with difficulty, but did overcome. Therefore, it is either incorrect or politically biased to “translate” such statements as “Kim acknowledged the impending famine.”
Now for the prospect of starvation and the rest. The author has dealt with the problems of the diplomatic corps quite recently, but let’s talk in more detail about the situation in the country as a whole.
The reader will remember that the famine of the second half of the 1990s had several causes. The first is the DPRK’s unpreparedness to sever economic ties with Eastern bloc countries. This caused an energy crisis, and the food crisis was a consequence of it simply because the supply of fertilizers and fuel ran out. Today, some amount of fuel is supplied by pipeline through China, plus in 25 years the North Koreans have somehow raised their energy industry: during Kim Jong-un’s reign, a number of hydroelectric power plants and domestic fertilizer plants were built. It is worth noting that the so-called single-carbon chemical industry was an attempt to make synthetic fuel from local coal, which is more suitable for metallurgy than energy.
Then, the catastrophe of the 1990s came from much worse natural disasters: two years of massive floods, followed by a year of drought. At the same time, the 1995 floods dealt a complex blow to the nation that swept away the portion of agriculture based on terraced farming, flooded a significant number of coal mines, and blocked roads. Today, the likelihood of such a catastrophe is low, since measures to ensure food security are still in place.
It is not only the author who takes an optimistic approach, but also the Russian ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, who gave a very detailed interview to the TASS news agency. In it, he confirmed that foreign trade had stopped, movements within the country were strictly limited, and a special regime was imposed in the border areas and along the sea coast. The population continues to wear masks and maintain social distance, and there is “a continuous series of disinfections”. Imported products have almost disappeared from the shelves, the prices of many industrial and food products have increased markedly, but there is no shortage of basic foodstuffs, and if prices have risen, it is moderate and not all at once. Rice still costs 4,500 won/kg, the same as before.
On the other hand, the Russian ambassador notes that large disinfection complexes are being built in North Korea at an accelerated pace, and this work should be completed by the end of April. After that, the flow of goods should be restored, but in the meantime even the humanitarian aid that has already been prepared for delivery is still pending. Matsegora notes that the country will need medicines, including vaccines, as well as medical instruments and equipment.
In this context, there is a crucial question: When will North Korea start receiving vaccines? So far, it is officially known that 1 million 700,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine will reach the DPRK not by May 2021, but only later. In addition, there is less verified information that China is going to supply some doses as part of bilateral cooperation. 1.5 million doses for a country of 25 million is a rather large batch, and it should be enough to provide mass vaccinations for those who will have to deal with deliveries from abroad. After that, the import ban imposed in August 2020 can be lifted.
When a correspondent openly asked him whether the current situation could be compared with the “Arduous March” of the 1990s, Alexander Matsegora answered simply: “Thank heavens it’s still ways off from the March, and I hope it doesn’t ever come to that. I remember well what it was like here in the second half of the 90s, and I have something to compare it to. The current situation is indeed difficult, but it can’t be compared to the misfortune that befell the country back then.” In his opinion, there is no hunger in the country today, although a good harvest will require fertilizers, fuel and spare parts, which will largely have to be bought abroad. In addition, it is hoped that there will be no repeat of the situation in 2020, when three powerful typhoons in a row hit the farming industry, especially vegetable production.
Incidentally, the Russian ambassador also drew attention to the fact that after Kim Jong-un mentioned the “Arduous March,” there has been no mention of this call or clarification of what it means in the DPRK’s media. In the author’s opinion, if it were a matter of purposeful preparation of the country for a new round of hardship, the term “New Arduous March” would most likely have already begun to be exploited.
To summarize, it can be said that the situation is anything but simple, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is likely that by the summer the period of severe self-isolation associated with the import ban will be over. The bigger problem, in the author’s view, is that the bias or lack of competence leads to a flood of alarmist news stories that have for 30 years now cradled the notion that North Korea is on the brink of collapse. The talk that there is a famine in North Korea, if not today, then tomorrow, is such a common element of discourse in anti-Pyongyang propaganda that one who does not know the details takes it at face value, and North Korean statements that this is not true are taken as state propaganda and are disavowed by the fact of their origin alone and also by the quality of the rhetoric. But there is no famine as of now, and the author hopes there won’t have to be one.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.