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, 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 grassroots members, called cell secretaries. During his opening day speech Tuesday, Kim said improving public livelihoods in the face of the “worst-ever situation” would depend on the party cells.
During the party congress in January, Kim ordered officials to build stronger self-supporting economy, reduce reliance on imports and make more consumer goods. But analysts are skeptical about Kim’s push, saying the North’s problems are the result of poor management, self-imposed isolation and sanctions over his nuclear program.
Chinese data show 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 health care system.
Cha Deok-cheol, deputy spokesman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, told reporters Friday that there are multiple signs that North Korea is taking steps to ease control on 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.
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 North Korean refugees flooding over 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 pandemic border closures.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.