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Fear of deadliest famine in 1990s haunts North Korea amid national lockdown

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Employees of the Medicament Management Office of the Daesong District in Pyongyang provide medicine to residents as the state increases measures to stop the spread of illness in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 16. AP-Yonhap
Employees of the Medicament Management Office of the Daesong District in Pyongyang provide medicine to residents as the state increases measures to stop the spread of illness in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 16. AP-Yonhap

Pandemic stokes fear among North Koreans about natural calamity-driven mass starvation

By Kang Hyun-kyung

North Koreans call it the Arduous March, also known as the March of Suffering, one of the deadliest famines which took the lives of countless people in the impoverished state.

Starting in 1995, the mass starvation ― which was the combined result of the North Korean regime's mismanagement of its economy at the time, the suspension of economic assistance from the Soviet Union following its collapse and a series of floods and droughts that led to a drastic decline in crop production ― continued until 1999.

There's no official data accounting for the exact death toll from starvation during that period, but experts have estimated that it ranged from the hundreds of thousands to the millions.

The famine was a game-changer for North Korea, as it reshaped ways of life inside the Stalinist state. Having nowhere to rely on for food as state rations stopped, North Koreans were forced to find their own ways to survive. "Jangmadang" or marketplaces sprang up across the nation as hungry residents tried to get back on their feet and make ends meet by trading goods for other necessities.

Lingering memories of the horrors of the tragic period haunt North Korea these days as the reclusive state has now been grappling with the deadly COVID-19 virus since May 10, when it officially confirmed its first victim of the BA.2 strain, known as the "stealth Omicron."

The situation has since gone almost out of control as cases of "fever" skyrocketed over the following days. According to North Korea's Central News Agency, nearly 269,510 new cases of fever were reported on Monday along with 6 more deaths. Until Monday, 1.48 million North Koreans, out of the total population of 26 million, had been classified as being infected with the virus, with 56 total deaths.

Due to the shortage, if not the lack of, test kits, the North identifies all those who have fever as patients infected with stealth Omicron. Because of this unscientific way of tracing COVID-19 cases, experts say that the actual figures for virus cases and fatalities could be a lot higher than what the regime has officially announced.

A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean soldiers gathering to pledge to complete their mission to supply medicine to pharmacies amid the nation's anti-epidemic campaign; at the Ministry of National Defense in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 16. EPA-Yonhap
A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean soldiers gathering to pledge to complete their mission to supply medicine to pharmacies amid the nation's anti-epidemic campaign; at the Ministry of National Defense in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 16. EPA-Yonhap

Kim Phi-lo, an associate professor at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, Seoul National University, said that North Koreans are panicking because of the unprecedented health crisis.

"They were shocked, as seen in leader Kim Jong-un's portrayal of the spread of the virus as the 'greatest turbulence' since the foundation of the nation," he said in a statement obtained by The Korea Times. He shared the material he prepared for a seminar held on Monday to draw up possible policy recommendations for the Yoon Suk-yeol government to help the North.

Kim said that the pandemic stoked fear among North Koreans about the possible recurrence of another major tragic event ― the consequences of which could be as catastrophic as those of the mid-1990s crisis in the North.

However, unlike the period of deadly starvation in the 1990s, he said, the current pandemic can be controlled by the North Korean regime, noting that there is a system in place there.

"During the Arduous March, over 1 million people were believed to have died and some even project that the death toll (from it) could be as many as 3 million. We don't know how many lives will be lost because of this pandemic, but we can imagine that the number of deaths will be much less than that of the Arduous March," he said.

Although the scale of the loss of human lives could be much less this time, Kim stressed, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could have a serious negative impact on North Korean society, just as the mid-1990s famine did on the country, with the introduction of elements of a market economy into the totalitarian communist state.

"The North Korean economy will be hurt. But there is another serious issue that has been stated less. North Koreans are panicked and reeling from the psychological shock. COVID-19 may amplify social unrest and create political distrust at the level of the grassroots," he said.

According to media reports, panic buying has been occurring in North Korea, as people have been stockpiling medicine and illegally distributed goods.

Kim stopped short of any collective action against the regime.

Tim Peters, a U.S. humanitarian worker based in Seoul and founder of the non-profit advocacy group, Helping Hands Korea, presented a different view about the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the North.

He said that the transmission of Omicron could lead to another version of the March of Suffering.

"I do believe that the substandard Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) healthcare system's severe lack of readiness, due to unwise governance, is tragically a catastrophe waiting to happen in terms of the rapid transmissibility of the Omicron variant," he said. "This current crisis could easily become as serious as the famine of the late 1990s if swift action is not taken."

On Monday, South Korea's unification ministry reached out to its northern counterpart, saying that the former is ready to help the pandemic-hit North through humanitarian assistance with no strings attached. But the North has not responded.

Peters said that the North Korean regime's refusal of humanitarian assistance from South Korea and other nations will only force its malnourished residents to suffer further, as its healthcare infrastructure is extremely poor.

"Not only has the DPRK refused vaccination donations from external sources, but equally hazardous to the public is the nation's outdated, antiquated and underfunded healthcare system," he said. "North Korean refugees we've helped in the past have sometimes joked that the North Korean hospital system can usually diagnose a medical problem, but unless a DPRK citizen has an unusually large amount of money to pay under the table to the doctors and staff, the injury or illness will very often go untreated. This is happening in a nation in which medical care is theoretically free of charge for all citizens."

Meanwhile, a North Korean defector, Kim Byung-uk, said that the health crisis in the North has been exaggerated and that the pandemic and the famine in the 1990s are not comparable.

"Back in the 1990s, the source of the problem was the shortages of food. There was almost nothing we could eat. But what's happening now in the North is that the North Korean regime is struggling with the spread of the highly transmissible virus," he said.

Kim, the first North Korean defector who obtained a doctoral degree in North Korean studies in the South, said that the spread of the virus will put Kim Jong-un's leadership to the test.

"But I don't think that he will be overwhelmed or lose his grip on the citizens because of the pandemic," he said. "North Koreans are accustomed to living under control and they rarely violate rules, as they have been trained to live like that since their childhoods. With fewer violators, the national lockdown will be effective and this will help Kim get the pandemic under control."

Kim went on to say that the pandemic could become a window of opportunity for North Korea because the regime could receive international aid.

People wearing protective face masks walk amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in front of Pyongyang Station in Pyongyang, North Korea April 27, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo. Reuters-Yonhap
People wearing protective face masks walk amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in front of Pyongyang Station in Pyongyang, North Korea April 27, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo. Reuters-Yonhap
Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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