Kim Jong-un’s claim of the “worst-ever situation”

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Perhaps I am late to the game already (the long weekend here in Israel is to blame for that), but it has been puzzling to see the media reporting on Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea faces its “worst-ever” economic situation at the moment, under both international sanctions and a self-imposed border lockdown.

It seems that Kim’s words have been misinterpreted or lost in translation. Colleagues at 38 North have rightly and importantly pointed out that the original Korean-language statement is not nearly as drastic. This is often the case with KCNA articles and translated statements from North Korea:

In the vernacular report, however, this term read kuknanhan (극난한), which would be better translated as “very hard” or even “extremely difficult.”[2] North Korea’s English-language media sometimes omit passages or provide translations that are different from the vernacular text, and without analyzing years’ worth of data, it is impossible to conclude whether they do so deliberately, or if they are simply oversights.

It is clear, however, that Kim did not say “the worst-ever situation” at this event. Even if he had, the North Korean leader has made similar remarks in connection with the country’s current circumstances in recent months. For example, Kim’s opening address at the Eighth Party Congress in January referred to the past five years as a period of “unprecedented, worst-ever trials.”

None of this means that the situation is not bad. But “worst-ever” would be extremely drastic for a country where the failings of the economic system led to a famine in the 1990s and early 2000s that took the lives of between 600,000-1.5 million people. Today’s conditions simply aren’t grave enough to warrant such comparisons.

Precisely how difficult conditions are remains hard to tell. The Russian ambassador to North Korea recently gave an interview where he said that the country’s food situation is not at all catastrophic, and that there are no signs suggesting an ongoing famine. He is probably right, but at the same time, we should be careful not to extrapolate too much about the situation in the provinces, for example, based on an assessment of the store shelves in Pyongyang. The country’s society is highly stratified and its economy relatively fragmented. The situation in one locality may well be much more dire than in another.

At the same time, we should also be careful not to take Kim Jong-un at his word. What, except for Kim’s own statement, suggests that today’s situation is worse than the one in 1995, after both economic collapse and heavy flooding took a severe toll on the economy? Sure, things are incredibly messy right now, a view that both circumstances and data support. Kim’s own statement, not least, is another solid data point showing just how grim things appear to be. But famine, meaning large numbers of people dying from starvation or malnourishment, is simply a different dimensions. Let us hope that North Korea does not get there, neither now nor in the future.

There are reasons to believe that it will not. The market system, for its faults and flaws, is able to react to changes in supply and demand, unlike the state distribution system in the 1990s. Moreover, China would likely step in with serious quantities of food aid if the situation got truly disastrous. Many signs suggest that North Korea and China expect to resume and even expand trade in the short-term. Should a drastic need arise, China would likely increase humanitarian shipments as well, although it is far from certain.