State Media Warns North Koreans Future May Require ‘Belts Tightened’

North Koreans squat on mudflats at the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese city of Dandong Friday April 23, 2004. Despite their countries' ostensible friendship, the mood at the border is tense and dour, and the contrast between China's relative wealth and openness and North Korea's poverty and …
AP/Greg Baker

North Korea’s state newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, warned readers Monday the country may soon face a significant economic downturn that will require “belts tightened” to secure the future, the South Korean news service Yonhap reported.

According to Yonhap, Rodong Sinmun reminded North Koreans “of the harsh period of Arduous March in the 1990s” and warned that another similar period could occur soon.

“Even if (we) have to travel a long distance through snowstorms with our belts tightened, we will go straight to the people’s road which was proved as immortal in the process of the 70-years-long struggle and to the road of socialism,” a piece in the newspaper on Monday read.

The Arduous March followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and brought with it mass starvation, poverty, and death. An estimated million North Koreans starved to death while many were forced to eat rats, boil grass, or find nutrients in dirt with no other options in sight. Defectors have written that it was common at the time to see either people who had fainted in public from hunger or died of starvation in the streets.

The warning of economic decline follows a pivot in rhetoric out of Pyongyang that promised anything but poverty. While the communist regime of Kim Jong-un emphasized the need to invest in nuclear weapons over all other government functions for years, at the beginning of 2018, Rodong Sinmun and other media began quoting Kim as stating that his regime would pivot away from nuclear weapon development and towards economic development.

At the annual Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) meeting this year, Kim Jong-un urged his fellow communists, “Let us further accelerate the advance of our revolution by concentrating all our efforts on socialist economic construction!”

North Korea has depended heavily on China for this new strategy. Kim sent a delegation of high-ranking communist leaders to Beijing in May to observe China’s strict authoritarian economy in the hopes of replicating it at home. At the time, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the North Koreans would “make some tours to learn about China’s achievements in economic development and reform and opening-up.”

North Korea has also reportedly asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help invest in “special economic zones” around the country, from the capital Pyongyang to the seaside would-be resort town of Wonsan. North Korea imposes a strict caste system on its citizens called songbun which bans anyone outside of a certain level of familial prestiege from the wealthiest parts of the nation. The “special economic zones” plan would allow Kim to profit from tourism and development while also ensuring that millions of North Koreans would never be exposed to an even remotely capitalist economic exchange.

Reports prior to Kim’s meeting with American President Donald Trump suggested that Xi was considering Kim’s offer, though sanctions prevent direct investment or gifts to Kim.

The U.N. sanctions, unprecedented in how broadly they impact the North Korean economy, may be the reason for the pessimistic tone in Rodong Sinmun to start the week. On Friday, Seoul’s central Bank of Korea (BOK) announced that North Korea’s economy had had its worst year in the past two decades, going from a modest growth in 2017 to a 3.5 percent drop in size in the past year. The worst year before this one was 1997, the tail end of the Arduous March.

“The negative growth is attributable to a drop in its mining output and a retreat in its heavy and chemical industries, as the United Nations imposed tougher sanctions over its nuclear and missile activities,” according to an unnamed official at the BOK.

UN sanctions affect most North Korean imports, most notably coal and products that generate significant revenue on the Chinese border like seafood. Exports fell 37 percent in general, and trade with South Korea fell 99.7 percent.

The little trade that North Korea has managed to continue doing appears to be the product of agreements with China and Russia to violate sanctions. According to reports surfacing last week, both China and Russia allegedly helped North Korea by buying shipments of coal on the high seas and helping sell them illicitly to countries like South Korea. Both China and Russia vocally oppose economic sanctions, and Russian officials have more recently insisted on lifting sanctions on the North entirely.

Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Kim Jong-un to visit North Korea last month. The two have not yet scheduled a time for such a summit. Kim made his first international voyage as head of state to China this year, visiting Beijing twice and the seaside city of Dalian on one occasion.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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