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Arduous March (2:08) Excerpt from film "A State of Mind" September 2003
The Arduous March refers to a dark period of hardship and famine in recent North Korean history.

Country: North Korea
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    Guiding Questions
    1. To what does the Arduous March refer?

    2. What conditions caused economic hardship in North Korea following the death of Kim Il Sung?

    3. How has the government dealt with food shortages?

    4. Why is it difficult for outsiders to know the details of events in North Korea?

    Background Essay
    In the years following Kim Il Sung's death, there was a great degree of hardship in North Korea. The entire country was faced with severe food shortages, natural disasters, failed harvests and a lack of raw materials. This period has become known as the Arduous March.

    In 1945, following World War II, a line was drawn on the 39th parallel dividing Korea into two states: North Korea and South Korea. North Korea was headed by Kim Il Sung and the communist Korean Workers' Party. The structure of North Korean government has persisted unchanged since the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 and the transference of power to his son, Kim Jong Il. The North Korean government is often referred to as a totalitarian dictatorship due to its single-party rule and the control exercised by the state over many aspects of life in the country.

    The Korean War, that lasted from 1950-1953, was one of several attempts during the last half century to reunify Korea under either Southern or Northern leadership. During this conflict, which in North Korea is referred to as the "Fatherland Liberation War," North Korea was unsuccessful in its bid to take over the southern part of the peninsula by force. The war ended up involving many different nations, and killed an estimated 4 million Koreans, nearly 1 million Chinese, 33,700 U.S. troops, and few thousand international UN troops.

    In recent decades, North Korea has suffered great economic hardship. The country's industry has fallen into ruin following the withering of trade arrangements with the USSR and China. Agricultural prospects are poor and the country relies heavily on foreign food aid. Several recent periods of severe deprivation and famine in the country have left the North Korean people in a struggle for daily survival. In 1995, horrible floods created conditions so bad that it is estimated that close to 3 million people died. In addition, international concern about North Korea's military efforts deepened considerably in the first decade of the 21st century following its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its announcement in 2006 of its first successful nuclear test.

    While North Korea outwardly struggles with isolation, famine, and economic collapse, the state expends considerable energy to produce ideological unity and pride among its population. The film A STATE OF MIND follows two young North Korean gymnasts as they prepare for the Mass Games, a massive state-sponsored event glorifying North Korea's leaders. This display of pageantry and governmental control involves tens of thousands of participants manipulating large colored cards and performing perfectly synchronized gymnastics routines. It is considered a great honor to participate in the Mass Games, and requires year-round practice.

    North Korea operates under a food rationing system. Pak Hyon Sun's mother says she is allocated one chicken, and five eggs per month for each family member. It's impossible to know if these rations are typical. Rations are increased for national holidays.

    In the years following Kim Il Sung's death, there was a great degree of hardship in North Korea. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of trading partners and subsidies led to severe food shortages. A combination of natural disasters, failed harvests and a lack of raw materials compounded the misery.

    Most western analysts predicted an implosion of the country and the system. No one will ever know the true number of deaths from starvation during this time.

    Even in Pyongyang there was no escape from the misery.

    To the North Koreans, this period has become known as the Arduous March. No North Korean citizen has ever spoken to a foreigner on the record about the Arduous March.

    The Arduous March...when we talk about the time of hardship, the first thing we think of is the Arduous March. To let you know how frustrated we felt back then, I only need to tell you about our oldest daughter's birthday at the time. On Song Mi's birthday, we had nothing but corn. So I ground up the whole ear of corn and made porridge with it. We celebrated our eldest daughter's birthday by giving a half a bowl each to the other children and a whole bowl to the birthday girl.

    I can't say that we live in abundance now, but it's much better than during the Arduous March.

    Related Links
    A State of Mind on PBS.org

    North Korea's Official Site

    National Geographic: Dangerous Divide

    Korean Central News Agency

    South Korean Ministry of Unification

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