A ‘more difficult Arduous March’
A new report by the United Nations indicates North Koreans could be facing the same situations Seojun described. The UN released a statement saying that 40 percent of the country’s population (25.8 million) is starving.
While North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has previously told North Koreans to “tighten their belts” and has spoken about the country’s economic difficulties, at the beginning of this month, speaking at a party conference, Kim used words he has not previously uttered publicly to describe the current situation facing North Koreans, including more than an estimated 400,000 underground Christians.
Speaking to his party officials, the 37-year-old leader called on them to “wage another, more difficult ‘Arduous March’ in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little.” The Arduous March refers to the name the North Korean people gave the great famine of the 1990s in which 2-3 million people died—a crisis created when the fall of the Soviet Union left North Korea without vital aid.
Kim’s reference to the “more difficult ‘Arduous March,’” offers us a glimpse of the crisis North Koreans are currently facing due, in large part, to North Korea shutting its borders to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Colin Zwirko, North Korea analyst at NK News, told the BBC, “It is not unusual for Kim Jong-un to talk about difficulties and hardship but this time the language is quite stark and that’s different.”
Days before the conference, Kim remarked that the country faced the “worst-ever situation” and “unprecedentedly numerous challenges.”
A month’s wages for 35 ounces of corn
For North Koreans who struggled to survive during the “Great Famine,” Kim’s words bring back horrific memories and images.
Hea-Woo, a North Korean prison camp survivor, recalls watching as her daughter grew sick from malnutrition and died during the famine.
Open Doors sources report that today, market prices are unstable and are often skyrocketing. Even with the markets being allowed open, most people don’t have the money to buy anything. Our sources also report that many citizens have already passed away due to malnutrition and starvation.
The UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, noted last month” that “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.”
The report also notes that trade between North Korea and China decreased by 80 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. Essentially, trade with China, the country’s economic lifeline, has come to a standstill—resulting in a significant decrease in market activities, reducing earnings for many families who relied on small-scale market activities.
“North Koreans are dependent on things they can find in the woods or the mountains,” says an Open Doors spokesperson. “And many goods are smuggled from China and through North Korea before they end up on the black market. The official economy was already in a coma, but now the shadow economy has also taken a huge hit, putting the lives of millions of children and adults at risk.”
As the border restrictions continue in North Korea, the shortages of food have quadrupled prices [at the market], says North Korean escapee Timothy*, who is now working for Open Doors.
The price of corn, the staple diet for most of rural North Korea, has reportedly fluctuated tremendously. At times, 35 ounces of corn has cost more than a month’s wages.
And Human Rights Watch reports that “there are so many more beggars, some people died from hunger in the border area, and there’s no soap, toothpaste, or batteries.”