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N. Korean Leader Mentions “Arduous March”



North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said that he is determined to embark on an even more difficult “Arduous March.” He made the remarks during the closing ceremony of the conference of grassroots members of the Workers’ Party, called the secretaries of party cells, on April 8. The term “Arduous March” refers to a state slogan that North Korea presented in the mid and late 1990s to overcome its extreme economic difficulties. Why did the North Korean leader bring back this phrase? 

Here is Hong Min from the North Korean Research Division at the Korea Institute for National Unification to explain. 

It means that the North Korean economy is in a very difficult situation. The pandemic has suspended its trade with the outside world and also disrupted economic or market networks internally. Diplomatically, it is uncertain how the Biden government in the U.S. will deal with North Korea. Uncertainties are expected to linger in North Korea-U.S. relations for quite a while, meaning that North Korea may have to wage a drawn-out tug-of-war with the U.S. Faced by the internal and external difficulties, the North Korean leader is telling the people that the country will have to face hardships, just as it did during the “Arduous March” period. 

North Korea has gone through an “Arduous March” three times so far. The original took place from December 1938 until March of the following year. During the period, North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung and his anti-Japan guerrilla unit actually “marched” from Manchuria to Yalu River. North Korea has used the term “Arduous March” to urge the people to uphold the spirit of the tough period of time. 

The second “Arduous March” refers to the period from the August Faction Incident in 1956 to North Korea’s economic development program known as the Chollima Movement. At the time, Russian and Chinese-linked party officials criticized Kim Il-sung to cause political conflict and they were all eventually purged. Afterwards, North Korea staged the Chollima Movement to strengthen internal unity. 

The third “Arduous March” occurred in the mid and late 1990s. After Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, North Korea suffered from a severe economic contraction due to international isolation and natural disasters. To overcome the crisis, the authorities presented the slogan “Arduous March” in a joint editorial on New Year’s Day in 1996. 

Following the disintegration of the socialist bloc in the early 1990s, North Korea could no longer engage in trade with socialist states. It relied heavily on the Soviet Union and China for crude oil, in particular. With imported oil, it produced fertilizer and used it for farming with a goal of producing as much output as it can in limited farmland. Unfortunately, the suspension of oil provision resulted in a food shortage. At the time, there was no market whatsoever in North Korea, and people depended entirely on the state rationing system. They were helpless against the sudden collapse of that system. It is unknown exactly how many people starved to death at the time. It is assumed that between 600-thousand to 2 million North Koreans died of hunger. It is hard to find such a devastating case in modern history. 

The Arduous March period in the 1990s gave rise to many changes and new social trends in North Korea. With industries and state rationing collapsing, local residents tried to survive on their own by working at private markets known as jangmadang. People became increasingly confused about existing socialist values, characterized by collectivism and self-reliance ideology. As a result, various types of non-socialist activities expanded. 

In the 1990s, the market mechanism brought about significant changes, both physical and psychological ones, in the lives of North Korean people. Those who spent their childhood during the Arduous March period and those who were born after the period now comprise the backbone of the North Korean economy. Unlike the older generation, they no longer depend on the state and trust markets. They are more focused on their own private lives. 

The authorities also learned that they cannot operate the country without markets. After a failed attempt to control markets, the state felt the need to co-exist with them. It has even become dependent on them. North Korea officially legalized markets in 2003. 

In 2016, scholars estimated that there were 406 official markets across the country. The “Arduous March” created and vitalized markets, which have now become an indispensable part of life in North Korea.

In the 1990s, North Korean authorities used the term “Arduous March” as a political slogan to urge the public to overcome the difficulties. However, it only reminds the people of the painful period when their livelihoods were put in jeopardy. 

Nevertheless, leader Kim Jong-un has brought back this term, in an apparent move to prevent the economy from sliding into a serious crisis by mobilizing as much workforce as possible internally, amid the prolonged international sanctions on the country. We can’t help but wonder if North Korea will be able to get over the current economic difficulties through another Arduous March initiative. 

I think North Korea can subsist at a certain level. Consumer prices, foreign exchange rates and other economic indicators are fluctuating at a stable level on the whole. So it’s too early to conclude that the current situation is as critical as the Arduous March period in the 1990s. 

We also have to note the relations between North Korea and China. There are reports that their trade volume is increasing, officially and unofficially, with North Korea showing signs of easing its border restrictions. While North Korea has been under harsh international sanctions, it has managed to endure them, largely due to its close relations with China. I think North Korea can hold out, as long as the pandemic risks are controlled properly. But it will be very challenging for the country to achieve its goal of economic development. 

During the conference of secretaries of party cells, leader Kim Jong-un also emphasized the need for ideological education. He pointed out that the younger generation has a serious problem with their ideology. He stressed the importance of regulating young people’s attire, hairstyles, speech, behavior and relations with other people. 

The top leader seems to believe that the mindset of young people is important for regime maintenance. 

In North Korea, people ranging from their late teens to those in their mid and late 30s trust markets more than the state. Leader Kim Jong-un needs to rule the so-called jangmadang generation. He placed great emphasis on tighter ideological control over young people to prevent outside culture or non-socialist practices from influencing them. North Korea is subject to strong international sanctions and suffers from the difficulties triggered by the pandemic. Also, uncertainties are growing over its relations with the U.S. In this situation, North Korea seeks to control the younger generation as strictly as possible. 

North Korea is struggling to control the people through the “Arduous March” scheme and ideological education. It is questionable if the country will be able to tide over its economic difficulties and prevent a change in public sentiment. 

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