Divisions of returning elite party members attend a meeting to pledge loyalty before the portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, upon their arrival at the Kumsusan palace in Pyongyang following their deployment to rural provinces to aid in recovery efforts amid damage caused by a September typhoon. Photo: AFP/Kim Won Jin

Kim Jong Un and others at the top of the Kim family regime in North Korea have received coronavirus vaccinations supplied by China, according to a Washington-based researcher who cites two unnamed Japanese intelligence sources.

This comes at a time when other reports tell of grave North Korean concerns over Covid-19; over an economy that the regime itself has strangled in an attempt, now looking like a failure, to keep the disease from ravaging the country; and over a population, civilian and military, that more often than normally has been ignoring rules and regulations in order to survive hard times.

The report by Harry Kazianis of 19FortyFive that high-level members of the family and regime were vaccinated “within the last two to three weeks” notes earlier reports by Reuters that point to desperation on the part of the Kims.

North Korea, Kazianis notes, “is suspected to have tried to hack into the computer networks of drugmaker AstraZeneca, part of what appears to be a wide-ranging campaign to secure any and all Covid-19 vaccine data it can through illegal cyberattacks.”

Official photo on October 11 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (2nd R) attending a military parade during a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP/KCNA/KNS

Kazianis writes that neither of his sources would single out the specific manufacturer of the Chinese vaccine that was administered to the ruling clan. His article mentions as possibilities Sinopharm Group, Sinovac and CanSinoBIO.

He adds: “With North Korea’s existence as a country owed in large part due to massive subsidies in food and fuel thanks to China, it would seem Pyongyang is now indebted to Beijing even more, especially if China were to provide coronavirus vaccine to the entire population, a situation that seems very possible.”

If the report is correct, the Chinese move looks like a new chapter in a story that began early this year when, with the North Korean economy already teetering dangerously under the pressure of international sanctions, Kim decided on a radical strategy to avoid the spread of the coronavirus from its apparent birthplace, China, into North Korea: He in effect doubled down on the sanctions, closing the 1,352-kilometer border.

For a while that worked, as far as the intended purpose was concerned, and Kim was able to boast – perhaps with only slight exaggeration – of having a Covid-19 caseload of zero.

This undated picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on March 4 shows workers disinfecting freight trains to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Sinuiju, at the Chinese border. Photo: AFP/STR/KCNA/KNS

Gradually, however, it became clear that the virus was making inroads into various parts of the country. When Kim disappeared from public view on occasion earlier this year, he may have been self-isolating to avoid becoming personally infected.

To understand the dire context in which Kim could be motivated to take any measures that might help, regardless of how extreme they might be, one has only to read the news that’s now coming out of North Korea.

While the official media agencies provide little real news, outside-based news organizations that rely on cell phone calls with incognito reporters in the North paint a darker picture than usual.

“N. Hamgyong Province witnesses soaring prices and more homeless on the streets,” reads the headline on a Daily NK article from Seoul.

“Economic difficulties lead to downsizing of end-of-year events,” says another.

And a piece on the impoverishment and malnutrition afflicting the military is headlined, “Half of N. Korea’s First Corps not ready to take part in winter training.”

“Residents Face Starvation as Border City is Blocked Off to Contain Potential COVID-19 Outbreak” is the headline from a story by Rimjingang-Asia Press, an Osaka-based news outfit that gives cellphones to its clandestine reporters in the North.

The regime has chosen this fraught moment to crack down on smuggling, which had provided a huge proportion of the livelihood of border dwellers.

Reports of punishments that have included executions keep coming out of those areas. Hopelessness is the over-riding theme of many of the reports.

In this photo taken on February 6, 2020, workers at the Songyo Knitwear Factory in Pyongyang produce masks for protection against the new coronavirus. Photo: AFP/Kim Won-Jin

The regime’s motive for the crackdown may be a combination of resisting the inroads of the virus – by keeping smugglers from meeting Chinese counterparts – and stopping the illegal export of scarce resources such as gold that are supposed to be a monopoly of the ruling party organization known as “Room 39” that handles the Kim family’s finances.

Regardless of the cause, international humanitarian organizations – remembering with horror the great famine of the mid-1990s – worry that the country, or a large portion of it, is headed into a disaster.

Such organizations, along with North Korea’s neighbor and number one trade partner China, see cause for a relaxation of sanctions, but nuclear weapons diplomacy has reared its head once again.

With winter approaching, Washington on Tuesday announced a new crackdown on China’s look-the-other-way approach to sanctions violations, especially involving fuel shipments.

Border closed: North Korean soldiers are seen at the China-North Korea border in Dandong, Liaoning province, China, on November 3. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

After all the lovey-dovey words exchanged between Kim and US President Donald Trump, Washington has basically reverted to its longstanding demand that Kim denuclearizes before being given any sanctions relief.

With his conventional military capability suffering as soldiers in great numbers become emaciated and weak from hunger and illness, it’s not likely to seem to Kim a good time to give up his nuclear “deterrent,” as he terms that alternative capability.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.