When North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un took over in late 2011, he promised, in his first public speech, that the North Korean people would “never have to tighten their belt again.” This was a reference to the terrible famine which struck North Korea in the late 1990s. The North Korean propaganda euphemism for this period is the ‘Arduous March.’ If Kim has indeed told his population to prepare for something like that again, it is a grave blow to the performance legitimacy of his government—but also a sign of the deep entrenchment of Kim’s autocracy.
In those terrible years of the late 1990s, somewhere between one and two million North Koreans starved to death. North Korea had become accustomed to subsidies from the Soviet Union, and when they were removed after the Cold War, the North Korean economy massively contracted. Indeed, the famine became a defining moment for then-North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, father to the current Kim. The Kim regime naturally blamed it on outsiders, but this was many years before the sanctions over the country’s nuclearization. In North Korean imagination, the famine is unsurprisingly a low point in the national history.
Hence the current Kim’s invocation against the Arduous March on his ascension. North Korea has no elections, of course, so there is no democratic legitimating mechanism for Kim’s rule. Instead, he seemed to settle on performance legitimation: he would govern better than his father to earn popular support. Back then, in 2012, Kim was new to power and likely vulnerable to his father’s retainers in the state and party. That Kim had not gone through the country’s grooming institutions—the party and the army—only further removed him from the officials around him. Popularity with the population—a sense that Kim would turn the page on his father’s disastrous administration and reform the country (at least a bit)—could help establish his position as the new monarch.
If Kim now feels comfortable enough to invoke the worst period in North Korean history as a possible future—one he explicitly declaimed would not return—then his autocracy must now be consolidated. That explicit reference suggests Kim has no need to curry favor with his own people anymore. He does not need them or any vague legitimacy from their approval. He has no internal opponents for whom a return to the Arduous March would be evidence of his unfitness. Like his father and grandfather before him, he is now a god-king, and if his people have to suffer mass death for him, then so be it.
If Kim is the winner in this scenario—his confidence in this evocation means he faces no challenge—then his population is, once again, the loser. The first famine resulted from Kim Jong-il’s incompetence and fear of a coup; he allowed the army to debauch the budget, even as the public was starving to death. This one almost certainly flows from similar incompetence, plus the deepening global isolation resulting from the drive for nuclear weapons.
North Korea is now substantially cut-off from the world economy, yet it will not alter its political economy—specifically, by reducing its military spending—to accommodate that cut-off and help roll it back. In other words, this is another self-induced wound from an elite that simply does not care if its population suffers. It is not sanctions, but the choices of the regime elite that has brought North Korea to the brink again: let them eat cake if that is what’s necessary for the Kims to have nuclear weapons.
Robert E. Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.