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North Korea's Kim Alludes To 1990s Famine, Warns Of 'Difficulties Ahead Of Us'

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is calling for his country to prepare for another "arduous march" — using a phrase that has come to describe a disastrous famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Speaking Thursday to members of the Workers' Party of Korea, or WPK, Kim referred to "many obstacles and difficulties ahead of us," according to the official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA.

"I made up my mind to ask the WPK organizations at all levels, including its Central Committee and the cell secretaries of the entire party, to wage another more difficult 'arduous march' in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little," he said.

It wasn't clear if Kim was warning specifically of another famine or using the euphemistic "arduous march" in a more general sense to symbolize economic headwinds facing North Korea. According to The Associated Press, North Korea monitoring groups haven't seen signs of mass starvation.

The North Korean famine that began in the mid-'90s coincided with Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, taking over the reins of power after the death of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung. The famine is widely attributed to the withdrawal of aid from Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, coupled with North Korea's own Stalinist economic system, which did little to incentivize food production. The death toll estimates from the prolonged food shortage range from hundreds of thousands to as high as 3 million.

The North Korean leader's remarks at the closing of a WPK conference follow his unusually frank and public assessment of the country's problems in recent months.

At the Eighth Party Congress in January, Kim acknowledged that a combination of factors — including the coronavirus pandemic, U.S.-led sanctions aimed at getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, and natural disasters — had led the country to fall "a long way short" of its goals. He said the country should be prepared to accept the "bitter lessons" of failure. And, in a speech to the WPK group at the opening of their meeting Tuesday, he said the country faced its "worst-ever situation."

Since Pyongyang closed its northern border last year amid rising fears of contagion in the coronavirus pandemic, trade between North Korea and China has plummeted by 80%, the AP reported, citing Chinese data.

Pyongyang has not acknowledged any coronavirus infections in the country so far, and experts warn that if the virus got a foothold there, North Korea's tattered health care system would quickly be overwhelmed. Earlier this week, North Korea announced it would not participate in the Tokyo Olympics this summer due to fears of the virus.

Last month, Kim exchanged messages with Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korea's state media reported that Xi committed to "provide the peoples of the two countries with better life" — a signal that some analysts interpreted as aid in the form of food, fertilizer and other supplies, according to the AP.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.