Rodong Sinmun, a North Korean government mouthpiece, ran an editorial this week, instructing North Korean citizens to prepare for economic hardship and even famine. The editorial couched the warning in strictly revolutionary language, suggesting that North Korean citizens should prepare for a new “arduous march” as the “road to revolution is long and arduous.” “We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again,” the editorial noted.
Sadly, North Korea is no stranger to famine and economic hardship. The re-use of the “Arduous March” reference by Rodong Sinmun is particularly worrisome; the the devastating famine that killed hundreds of thousands (the highest estimates put deaths at over 3 million) during the late 1990s was known as the Arduous March. The late-90s famine was borne of economic mismanagement by the regime of Kim Jong-il, which pursued the Songun, or “military first,” approach to economic planning, leaving North Korea’s agricultural output crippled. Intensifying North Korea’s poor fortunes, floods and droughts in succession from 1994 to 1998 worsened the crisis. Ultimately, the international community provided food aid given the huge humanitarian toll and humanitarian aid, including food aid, in some form persisted into the 2000s.
This time, it is striking that North Korean state media are suggesting a new Arduous March may be on the horizon at a time of unusually intensified testing of nuclear and ballistic missile technology. As I recently discussed in The Diplomat, Kim Jong-un modified his father’s Songun approach with what he’s called the Byungjin line: Instead of military-first policies, the younger Kim seeks the simultaneous pursuit of economic development and a nuclear deterrent. The regime’s activities since the purported test of a thermonuclear device in January have been notably skewed toward the nuclear deterrent leg of Byungjin. Economic development, though a major part of Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech and the subject of several propaganda slogans recently, has yet to feature as a major topic on Pyongyang’s agenda.
With Rodong Sinmun presaging a possible return to famine and massive economic hurt for ordinary North Koreans, it might be likelier than ever that the upcoming Workers’ Party Congress–North Korea’s first in 35 years–will feature major economic reforms. North Korea is beginning preparations for the event, which will commence on May 7, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Of course, as with so many North Korea-related topics, the idea that Kim is about to unveil a major program of economic reform is speculative. One potential indicator to watch for in April will be another possible nuclear or major ballistic missile test. Kim Jong-un’s recent displays in March 2016 have focused on technology that would make a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) a reality for North Korea. Kim has showed off a compact nuclear device, a reentry-capable warhead nose cone, and, most recently, testing of solid fuel propellant.
Moreover, Kim Il-sung, Kim’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea, has a birthday coming up on April 15th. January’s nuclear test and February’s satellite launch happened to coincide with Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il’s birthdays respectively. Kim Jong-un might decide to fete his grandfather’s birthday with another show of nuclear force: either a nuclear test or, at the more frightening end of the spectrum, a potential KN-08 ICBM test with an atmospheric nuclear detonation. Either way, Kim would be demonstrating that the first leg of his Byungjin policy was in good stead, opening him up to focus on the second–economic reform–when the Party Congress comes around in early May.
However, Kim’s attempts at reform might be too little too late. With unusually harsh UN Security Council sanctions in place under resolution 2270 and the persistence of a historic drought, Rodong Sinmun‘s warnings may prove not to be an exaggeration. Tragically, as the 1990s proved, unlike in most states, widespread famine and economic pain are unlikely to harm the regime, which will continue to rule with an iron grip. Ultimately, it is North Korea’s ordinary people who will bear the brunt of the Kim family’s oppression and misrule.