Will the Arduous March announced by Kim Jong-un, which referenced the mass death from famine that took place in 1990, really happen again?
On September 10, 2018, Kim Jong-un insisted in front of major North Korean executives that it was necessary to carry out “National Firstism” in the future.
Looking back on the history of North Korea, the slogan of “firstism” has been used as a means by the Kim family to block agitation and re-establish the national order.
The types of North Korea’s firstism slogans include “Chosun Firstism,” “People’s Firstism,” “Self-Strength Firstism” and recently Kim Jong-un’s “state firstism.”
In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union and East Eurasian socialist countries went through the dissolution, the North Korean needed a new strategy. The Kim family then proposed a future version of the Korean People’s First Principle to reassure the wayward North Koreans who were disappointed with how socialism turned out.
Chosen Nation Firstism was a future version of North Korea socialism and also new ideology for brainwashing. This was one of the sub-discourses to support the “our-style socialism” that North Korea put forward to justify the leader's dictatorship as the international and economic crisis hit the North Korean socialist system from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.
In addition, “People’s Firstism” and “Self-Strength Firstism” were the best tools of preservation to keep the status quo by preventing continuous ideological fluctuations of North Koreans during and after the suffering of the Arduous March.
North Korea also explained that “National Firstism” is based on the Juche ideology and Kim Jong-il’s patriotism. This slogan is intended to offset responsibility for the economic collapse by strengthening national defense power. For instance, Kim Jong-un, who acquired the know-how of maintaining the regime, insisted on the legitimacy of nuclear possession and congratulates North Koreans on the state having such weapons.
He is also intended to instill the belief that only he possesses the North Korean-style version of managerial abilities needed for the future.
After the Arduous March in 1990s, North Koreans have succeeded in growing their own economy, not the state. This was done through chasing the capitalist system.
Kim Jong-il put the military first rather than the economy, and when the hard march began North Korea received food and fertilizer aid from South Korea every year until 2008, but no one knows whether it was properly supplied to the North Korean people.
Even after Kim Jong-un came to power, nuclear weapons and missiles took precedence. During his time in power, economic battles for a short period of times, including the five-year plan, were announced—but they have never achieved success.
The reason for this is not due to sanctions against North Korea or the coronavirus, but questions about what Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un did to improve the North Korean people’s economy.
Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea in 1948, followed the Soviet Union without even knowledge of the economy, emulating Soviet-style Marxist politics. After the Korean War in 1950, Marxism was erased and the Juche idea, that is, Kim Il-sungism, was implemented inside North Korea.
Currently, the reason Kim Jong-un re-announced the Arduous March is that it reflects the August sectarian incident declared by Kim Il-sung in 1956 to undo the North Korean people’s disillusionment with socialism and acquaintance with the capitalist system and individualism. The Arduous March is the case of a struggle to expose and crush counter-revolutionary conspiracy tactics and eradicate anti-socialist ideology.
At the 8th Party Congress in early this year, talks about eradicating anti-socialist ideology came out, and the market has been nationalized by North Koreans for the past ten years.
While the Jangmadang grey and black markets have been running for the past ten years, North Koreans have had opportunities to receive information from abroad, and they have been able to watch South Korean dramas, music and action movies. The information they received was that they came to know a world completely different from what the North Korean regime taught for seventy-five years, and the number of people who decided to escape after listening radio, watching Korean movies, and dramas was massive.
Last year, Kim Jong-un also issued a policy that prevents newborn children from taking money-related, capitalist-sounding names. The new Arduous March announced by Kim Jong-un will be a battle between the North Korean people and ideology.
North Koreans who yearn for freedom will win this march of hardship. Since they have already tasted freedom, no totalitarian system can dominate them.
Jihyun Park is a North Korean defector and Human Rights Activist. She won NatWest’s Chairman’s Award AWA 2018 and Amnesty international Brave Award 2020. Park is also the Outreach Director at Connect North Korea, a reporter with Radio Free Asia, the Co-Director of Stepping Stones and also First North Korean running as a Conservative Candidate Local Elections in the United Kingdom.