This picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on April 9, 2021, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the Sixth Conference of Cell Secretaries of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

In a new sign of what dire straits North Koreans find themselves in, Kim Jong Un, speaking to ruling party cell secretaries this week, is reported to have complained of “the worst-ever situation, in which we have to overcome unprecedentedly numerous challenges.”

It’s true that US and international sanctions over his nuclear weapons program combined with his decision to close his borders to avoid coronavirus exposure have taken a huge toll on an economy that, even without those factors, had lagged farther and farther behind South Korea’s for some four decades.

Things north of the Demilitarized Zone are at a low point now, to be sure. But is it the low point?

It would be difficult to support the idea that 2020-21 is worse for North Koreans than the 1950-53 Korean War, when the country lost nearly two million people – a fifth of its population – as its cities and towns were leveled by US carpet-bombing.

The war – starting with the swift reversal of a southward invasion directed by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, and ending with a ceasefire after neither North nor South Korea had gained much territory – certainly was the low point of the founding ruler’s era.

Pyongyang watchers would also point to another period that could compete with the present for the title “second worst ever”: the 1994-98 “Arduous March” when an estimated 600,000 to one million North Koreans – then 3-5% of the population – died in a general economic collapse that featured flooding followed by famine.

A starving, homeless North Korean woman in 2010. Photo: Asia Press/Rimjingang

There was no disputing during the famine that hunger was extremely widespread if not routine. It afflicted even the best-fed large segment of the populace, which was the Korean People’s Army. The soldiers “get more than other North Koreans but they’re not getting enough,” an official with close ties to the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) and United States militaries told me in June 1998.

Chronic malnutrition

The man told me a story (which I in turn told to readers of my 20o4 book) with echoes of HG Wells’s frail, flushed, four-foot-tall Eloi. In the first year of the most devastating period of the famine, the man told me:

Two North Korean soldiers from a frontline unit in the southwestern islands got washed away in a boat while checking their nets, seeking protein. They stayed approximately two days in the boat, and were almost dead when rescued.

The ROKs picked them up, and let the North Koreans know we’d return them. While they had them in the ROK Navy hospital they examined those boys from asshole to appetite. They found both had liver dysfunction due to chronic malnutrition. Both had kidney dysfunction and skin discoloration [pellagra]. Both had severe dental problems.

The big one was five feet five and a half inches tall. The other one was four foot eleven. The big one, 19 years old, weighed 98 pounds. The little one, 21, was 89 pounds. We don’t get a lot of North Korean soldiers to do in-depth medical analysis. We didn’t know whether we had the runts of the litter.

We repatriated them through Panmunjom. About 10 days later we saw on Pyongyang television these guys returned to their unit for a heroes’ welcome. Everybody in the unit was the same size. We can’t extrapolate but we can draw a very firm conclusion that in that unit on the frontline islands the men were all little, all chronically undernourished and not in very good health.

And when I look at other North Koreans, other than in Panmunjom, I see little scrawny guys. North Korean defectors arriving in Seoul plump up after three to six months in the South. You can conclude all are undernourished – perhaps not malnourished, but not up to their genetic potential.

In South Korea, there are lots of six foot two, 180 pound [190 centimeter, 80 kilogram] guys. Even North Korea’s big guards at Panmunjom are not nearly as big as South Korean JSA [Joint Security Area] guards. Anecdotally, I’d say it’s clear about the KPA: their gas tank is running pretty close to empty.

The man’s story jibed with what World Food Program officials told me and other journalists in Tokyo that same month, June 1998. Along the Pyongyang-Wonsan-Chongjin route, said the WFP’s Eri Kudo, “we really saw in nurseries and kindergartens significantly undersized children with very, very thin limbs.”

Said her boss, WFP Assistant Executive Director Jean-Jacques Graisse: “I was shocked to see in most classes that the children on the average looked two years younger than they were” – a judgment that he said medical doctors working for aid organizations confirmed.

On family visits, the WFP officials asked to see kitchens so they could learn what people were eating. One old woman had only a large rice bowl containing a watery porridge of rice and grated corn – mainly water. The woman explained it was for her entire family, three bowls of that porridge for the day for five family members.

Walking around, Kudo found an old man lying down – the old woman’s husband. He could not stand up. His digestive system was too weak to take even the porridge. Kudo saw swollen faces. One aspect of East Asian culture, she noted, is the high value placed on forbearance: “‘Try to put up with the situation, don’t complain too much.’ So we imagine there are many more like that.”

Reports of malnutrition and starvation continued to be heard episodically after the ’90s – particularly around the 2009 currency revaluation by the Kim Jong-il regime, which amounted to mass robbery of the people’s savings.

And today?

Look at the front page of Asia Press/Rimjingang today and you’ll find that the top story bears this headline: “Military Cuts (Part 3): Height standard for recruits is 142cm. Growing trend of avoiding enlistment.” Translate those dimensions into feet and inches and we get four foot nine. Within this standard the two washed-away malnourished soldiers who were rescued in 1998 would have qualified as tall.

Asia Times asked Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Osaka-based Asia Press/Rimjingang, to comment on the basis of that and other information emerging from the isolated country via his “reporting partners” – undercover North Korean reporters whom he has trained abroad, then sent back to their home country equipped with Chinese cellphones.

Jiro Ishimaru speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in an undated photo. Source: Wikipedia

Things are very, very bad now, but “we cannot really compare what North Koreans experienced during the 1990s and what they are going through now,” said Ishimaru, who has covered the country for three decades. “During those years of horrible deaths by starvation, North Korea as a whole was in chaos and confusion. The society was in panic and nothing worked.

“Kim Jong Un, starting last year, placed the country under severe controls to fight against the pandemic. The present situation is caused by his tight control of everything to fight against the coronavirus. Businesses have been closed, market dealings limited, people’s activities restricted. A lot of people have lost the means of earning money. Even if some goods are for sale,  they don’t have cash to buy.

“This is the very major problem in that country now,” Ishimaru concluded. However, “recalling the great famine of the 1990s, the present situation does not seem as bad as those years.”


Not as bad, but pretty awful.

Ishimaru and his team of North Koreans have continued to send the news out during all those months of Covid-19. A resident of Hyesan told one of Ishimaru’s reporters: “There is a severe shortage of medicine and food. People are dying in my neighborhood.”

People also told the reporter that machine parts needed for spring farm work were not available in and around the border city, which has undergone multiple lockdowns in response to the virus.

Before the coronavirus, smuggling was big business between North Korea’s Hyesan and Changbai on the Chinese side of the Yalu river, but now it is absolutely impossible to cross the river with its banks heavily guarded by soldiers.

Soldiers are not allowed to go out or visit people due to the virus. Their families are not allowed to bring food to their sons and daughters. Many suffer from malnutrition. Soldiers eat stray goats and dogs. Some soldiers try to escape.

Ishimaru says Kim Jong Un’s by-far most important mission is to contain the coronavirus, to stop Covid-19 from entering the country and spreading, overwhelming the mostly primitive medical system.

Biden administration take note: “Kim may bark and make noise, but until this pandemic ends, North Korea does not have enough room or strength left for dealing with other countries,” Ishimaru concluded.

Filial piety?

So if it’s not really as bad as the worst crises that occurred on the watch of his grandfather, who died in 1994, and on the watch of his father, Kim Jong Il, who was the ruler during the “Arduous March,” why would Kim have suggested otherwise in his speech on Tuesday?

I’m going, for now, with the explanation of filial piety. North Korea is heavily Confucian. And Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy depends almost entirely on his descent from those two purportedly godlike beings.

He has given some earlier hints – rhetorically taking personal responsibility for problems – that suggested he might wish to avoid being as dependent as his forbears were on the personality cult that was built around the ruler.

Maybe the youngest Kim thought, Hey, if I tell the party cell secretaries straightforwardly that we’re in deep doo-doo (hat tip for that language to another dynastic politician, the late US President George HW Bush), maybe they’ll consider that good leadership.

Maybe. Anyhow, what we see today is probably the low point of Kim’s own era – so far.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. Also contributing to this article is Hideko Takayama, a North Korea watcher who previously reported for the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek and Bloomberg News and who currently is a columnist for the Japanese daily Yamagata Shimbun.