North Korea faces economic ruin amid shortage of food and medicine

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North Korea is facing one of the worst economic crises in its 73-year history, amid shortages of food and medicine and warnings of rising unemployment and homelessness.

The country’s economy has been hit by more than a year of border restrictions imposed after the coronavirus outbreak, flooding caused by natural disasters and international sanctions imposed in response to the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs .

Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called on ruling party members to lead another “hard march” to avert an economic crisis, which he compared to a 1990s famine in which until to three million people would have suffered died.

While groups monitoring the north say they have seen no evidence of an ongoing humanitarian disaster, observers with contacts inside the country believe that worsening conditions coincide with a crackdown by a regime fearing a repeat of the social upheaval that followed the famine.

“There are many obstacles and difficulties ahead of us, and therefore our struggle to implement the decisions of the Eighth Party Congress would not be entirely straightforward,” Kim told grassroots members of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. , depending on the state. run the KCNA news agency.

Kim, who is facing the biggest national ordeal of his nine years in office, said he had tasked party members at all levels to “lead another steep, more difficult march in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even if it is only a little ”. .

The term “hard march” is a euphemism used to describe the aftermath of the famine of the 1990s, which was caused by the fall of the Soviet Union – then one of the main providers of aid – economic mismanagement and disasters. The estimated death toll ranges from hundreds of thousands to between two and three million people.

The North sealed its land borders with China and Russia early last year after the first reports of Covid-19 cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan. While closures and restrictions on movement of people within the country appear to have prevented the pandemic from taking hold, they have devastated its import-dependent economy.

“The North Korean economy is on the brink of a huge recession,” said Jiro Ishimaru, who runs the Osaka-based Asia Press website and manages a network of citizen journalists in North Korea.

Ishimaru said the near collapse of trade with China caused significant job losses as people were forced to sell their property and even residency rights in their state-owned homes to buy food.

Data shows that North Korea’s trade with China declined by around 80% last year after Pyongyang sealed its borders, knowing that significant virus cases would quickly cripple its already weak health infrastructure.

“A lot of people are suffering,” Ishimaru said. “I have spoken to contacts who say there are more people begging for food and money in markets, and an increase in the number of homeless people. There is also a dire need for antibiotics and other drugs. “

Kim, who has been unusually candid about the “worst challenges in history” facing North Korea, appears to be using anti-Covid measures – with strict limits on grassroots movements – to strengthen his grip on power, amid the concern within the regime that a prolonged economic crisis the crisis could cause a breakdown of social order.

“Kim Jong-un promised the North Korean people in 2012 that they would never have to tighten their belts again,” said Leonid Petrov, North Korean expert and lecturer at the International College of Management in Sydney.

“Obviously, no one could have imagined that a global pandemic would worsen international sanctions, so the ‘hard march’ hypothesis returns is designed to mobilize party members to work harder to avoid a disaster.”

Getting an accurate picture of conditions in the country has been made more difficult by the departure of large numbers of diplomats and aid workers during the pandemic.

North Korea continues to report that it has not identified any cases of Covid-19, but US and South Korean officials have questioned those claims.

Russian Ambassador to Pyongyang Alexander Matsegora – one of the few diplomats still in the country – said in April that life in North Korea was “difficult”, but there was no sign of repeating from the famine of the 1990s.

“Thank goodness we are a long way from the ‘hard march’, and I hope it never gets to that,” he told Russian news agency Tass. “The most important thing is that there is no famine in the country today.”

Kim’s reference to starvation was an ideological call to arms rather than a serious prediction of impending disaster, said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.

“He was not crying ‘famine’, but rather demanded national unity to increase national production,” Easley said. “Kim is also using North Korea’s self-imposed Covid isolation to cleanse the home of foreign influences he sees as subversive to his rule. “

There are signs that North Korea is trying to rebuild its economic lifeline with China – its main ally and aid donor – including resuming cross-border freight train service and building facilities quarantine that would allow the delivery of supplies by truck. .

China is keen to avoid economic collapse in the North in case it triggers a humanitarian crisis and political unrest that may end in the South Korean-controlled peninsula and the United States. “China and Russia cannot afford to lose North Korea to the benefit of the United States and its allies in the region,” Petrov said.

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