North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has urged citizens to prepare for a "difficult" crisis, following human rights groups' warnings that the country faces dire food shortages and economic instability.
Speaking at a party conference, Mr Kim appeared to compare the situation to an infamous deadly famine in the 1990s.
North Korea has shut its borders due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It has brought trade with China, its economic lifeline, to a standstill.
This is also on top of existing international economic sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
In a rare admission of looming hardship, the authoritarian leader on Thursday called on party officials to "wage another more difficult 'Arduous March' in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little".
The Arduous March is a term used by North Korea officials to refer to the country's struggle during a devastating famine in the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union left North Korea without crucial aid. Around 3 million people are estimated to have died during that period.
Earlier this week, Kim had warned the country faced the "worst-ever situation" and "unprecedentedly numerous challenges".
How bad is the situation?
There have been warnings for months that the people of North Korea are struggling.
Reports of hardship appear to be coming especially from towns near the Chinese border, where smuggling would have been a huge earner for many.
The price of corn, the staple diet for most of rural North Korea, has reportedly fluctuated enormously and at times a kilogram of corn has cost more than a month's wages.
Lina Yoon, a researcher from Human Rights Watch, said in a recent report citing unnamed contacts in the country that "there is barely any food going into the country from China for almost two months now".
The UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned last month in a report of a "serious food crisis" already leading to malnourishment and starvation.
"Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them."
"There are so many more beggars, some people died from hunger in the border area, and there's no soap, toothpaste, or batteries."
Why is North Korea in trouble?
Tightly controlled by the government, North Korea's economy is one of the least-free in the world and is said to be highly inefficient.
The enormous cost of maintaining the military and security structures has left very little to the ordinary North Korean.
International economic sanctions imposed to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme have made it worse, as has the ongoing closure of the country's borders to keep the coronavirus out.
Trade with China has come to a halt since early 2020, cutting off a vital lifeline of official and unofficial supplies to the country.
North Korea claims the border shutdown has kept it Covid-19-free, though analysts doubt this claim.