SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hinted last week that the isolated nation's economy has been battered by the pandemic, resulting in a potential decline in loyalty to the party.
"I made up my mind to ask the WPK [Workers' Party of Korea] organizations at all levels ... to wage another more difficult 'Arduous March 'in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little," Kim said in a speech at the Sixth Conference of Party Cell Secretaries.
The "Arduous March" refers to famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people, with some estimates rising to 3.5 million deaths.
The statement came two days after Kim's opening speech at the conference, in which he called the current domestic situation "the worst-ever" and said the country was facing "unprecedentedly numerous challenges."
North Korea's economy is facing one of its worst recessions in its 73-year history, mainly as a result of strict COVID-19 containing measures that led to the border with China being closed off since early 2020. The closure has resulted in an 80% drop in trade with China, leading to a sharp drop in market activity, food shortages, and unstable market prices.
According to reports by AsiaPress, a Japan-based news agency with sources inside North Korea, the domestic economic situation is so dire that soldiers are being discharged from the military early and instead made to work in mines and agriculture to make up for labor shortages. This means an increasing number of troops are being used as 'free labor' to generate much-needed funds for the regime.
The country has not officially confirmed any infections, and the extent of the economic downturn is hard to gauge due to the lack of reliable statistics.
Gianluca Spezza, an associate research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, said that the humanitarian situation has worsened significantly over the past year.
"From a scale of 1-10, it's probably an 8," he told Nikkei Asia. "A year of the pandemic has resulted in spikes in nearly all other illnesses, particularly the debilitating ones, that needed prolonged hospitalization, which was not available during the peaks of the pandemic."
"So we had skyrocketing numbers of cancer patients, people on dialysis, patients needing difficult surgery, transplants, etc, all worsening, due to either unavailability of medical care, prolonged waiting, isolation of entire wards in some hospitals, etc. I'd say it's pretty bad."
But despite the weak economy, experts doubt the country is close to collapse.
A. B. Abrams, author of "Immovable Object: North Korea's 70 Years at War with American Power" and an expert on East Asian politics, said that China's strong position plays a major role in ensuring North Korea's survival.
"China has not been lost as a creditor, investor or trading partner and has maintained robust economic growth while remaining politically stable, meaning it can be relied on to continue to play an important role in Pyongyang's efforts to modernize its economy even if trade has temporarily declined," Abrams told Nikkei Asia.
Abrams added that despite Kim using the "Arduous March" term, the current situation differs greatly from that of the 1990s.
"The decline in the West's economic clout, which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, means the potency of Western sanctions will diminish over time and the West's ability to pressure other countries to shun trade with North Korea will decline," he said. "North Korea's situation today is in this respect the opposite of what it was in the 1990s when worsening isolation and eventual collapse were expected and Western power was on the rise."
Although the situation may not be as dire as it was thirty years ago, the North Korean leadership is clearly concerned about how the hardships may be affecting loyalty to the party.
Referring to the conference as "a significant occasion in further consolidating the foundations of the Party," Kim emphasized the need to strengthen ideological unity, urging attendees to set a good example by showing their party loyalty.
The original Korean-language speech included references to concerns about "anti-socialist" and "non-socialist" phenomena.
North Korean authorities have stepped up a crackdown on "illegal" and "impure" propaganda, using lectures near the Sino-North Korean border aimed at encouraging the 'guilty' to turn themselves in, according to reports by Daily NK, a news organization that supports a network of civilian journalists inside the country. This comes after the "Anti-Reactionary Thought Law" was enacted last year to ramp up surveillance of citizens.
"Disloyal" activity has reportedly increased among the public over the past year.
According to Daily NK, authorities in Pyongyang, citing "ideological problems," expelled around 30 discharged military officers and their families -- more than 100 people in total -- outside the capital because they engaged in "inappropriate speech and behavior."
Dissatisfaction among soldiers due to lack of adequate provisions and better job opportunities after being discharged has been on a steady rise for years and has further been exacerbated by the pandemic.
According to Abrams, Kim is hoping to use the "Arduous March" reference "to galvanize society and emphasize that the current economic difficulties are temporary -- much as the downturn in the 1990s was."
Similarly, Spezza said that "people, in a state like North Korea can coalesce around the state, the nation, the race when things get tough, like they did in the 1990s and they can muddle through."
Besides the difficulties incurred due to the pandemic, Pyongyang continues to blame the U.S-led sanctions regime for its current economic hardships.
Washington, however, disagrees. In response to Kim's recent comments, the U.S. is insisting the responsibility for North Korea's domestic woes lies with its own government.
"They are in the conditions and the circumstances they're in, because of the actions of their leadership," U.S. President Joe Biden's press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday.