Fears mount over North Korea’s ‘great leap back’

On the west bank of the Yalu, in the Chinese city of Dandong, containers full of medical supplies and protein biscuits remain intact, banned from crossing the river and entering North Korea.

On the bank opposite Sinuiju, construction of a new bridge, roads and buildings has slowed to a ramp – Kim Jong Un’s master plan for border modernization is gathering dust.

Dark scenes reflect nation still cut off from outside world more than a year after Kim Jong Un severed almost all of North Korea’s land, sea and air links in response to the explosion of coronavirus cases in China.

Aidan Foster-Carter, an expert on North Korea at the University of Leeds, warned of a “big leap back” if Kim both rejects foreign aid and refuses meaningful economic reform.

“Thanks to China and Vietnam, we know what a state socialist regime needs to do to revitalize its economy: in fact, create state capitalism while retaining the Communist Party regime,” Foster said. Carter.

Foreign government officials, international aid workers, human rights activists and diplomats are urging the North Korean leader to partially reopen his country to foreign aid. Fears of food security and economic collapse are growing as there is no clear plan to vaccinate a population of 25 million people.

Lee In-young, South Korea’s unification minister, called for greater international action and a softer stance on sanctions due to a potential humanitarian crisis.

“It is very important for us to provide this assistance at the right time,” Lee told the Financial Times.

After a triple whammy of strict border closures, economic sanctions and devastating floods last year, the economy suffers its worst decline since famine killed millions in the mid-1990s, experts say who closely follow the country.

Statistics for North Korea are notoriously unreliable. However, data based on information provided by sources inside the country, as well as anecdotal evidence from defectors, suggests sharp price increases for staples such as food and clothing.

“We are in a very, very dangerous time,” said Lina Yoon, researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“We are in this moment where most of the fall harvest has already been consumed. And we still have two or three months to wait for the next one [crops] exit.”

Kim Jong Un centralized control of the economy © Reuters

Peter Ward, a Seoul-based University of Vienna expert who tracks North Korea’s economy, said corn, a staple food for many people, was trading “at near record high prices.”

“Most North Korean households are going to suffer,” Ward said.

The freeze on cross-border trade, coupled with domestic traffic restrictions and sporadic city-wide lockdowns, appears to be hitting ordinary people who rely on buying and selling goods in the country. jangmadang, or local markets.

But it also hurts the lower, The upper class of North Korea, which has benefited enormously from trade with China and is a crucial source of income for the Kim regime.

Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean defector who said he speaks regularly with people inside the country, called the market trading system “almost crippled”.

“People started to lose their livelihoods,” Kang said.

In response to these challenges, Kim has increasingly adopted juche, the ideology of autonomy developed by his grandfather and founding North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

Rather than accepting external aid or allowing further economic liberalization, it has instead taken steps to centralize control while accelerate the development of nuclear weapons, said many experts.

Line graph of government revenue (% change, year over year) showing that North Korea's government revenue is expected to run out

Glyn Ford, a former member of the European Parliament who has close relationships with senior North Korean officials, disputes that Kim encourages some “market thinking” at the level of state-owned enterprises through some form of local management by workers in the country. power. to party.

At another border crossing 1,400 km northeast of Sinuiju, a group of Russian diplomats and their families were forced last month to push an open-air railroad cart across the Tumen River, their belongings piled high. summit in boxes and suitcases, as they completed the latter part of an intrepid journey to Vladivostok and out of North Korea.

North Korea has asked to participate in the Covax vaccine alliance which works to ensure equitable distribution of coronavirus injections.

And Pyongyang is developing a “nationwide roll-out vaccination plan” while working with agencies such as the World Health Organization and Unicef, a UN spokesperson told the Financial Times.

But Pyongyang fears that opening the border to allow the import of jabs could increase transmission of the virus. And, following an exodus last year, few foreign diplomats or aid workers remain inside the country to support or monitor a vaccination program.

Gen. Robert Abrams, who heads the Combined US-South Korea, told Congress this week that while Pyongyang’s viral response included shoot-to-kill orders along the North Korean and Chinese border, the measures have also been used by “the head of the regime to regain control of the economy”.

Abrams warned that food security would be further threatened if fertilizer imports from China were blocked at the border in April.

Seo Jae-pyeong, another escapee who now heads the North Korea Defectors Association, described Kim’s economic policies as “like wringing out a dried towel.”

“I don’t expect the North Koreans to go through pain worse than the ‘Hard March’ time, but I do expect them to suffer the same pain,” Seo said, referring to the euphemistic name given to period of famine by state propagandists.

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Moscow

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