North Korea's unwavering determination not to open its border with China to ward off the intrusion of the novel coronavirus has been fanning fears that the nuclear-armed country's citizens cannot receive food in satisfying quantities or vaccination anytime soon.
While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called for unity of its nationals to overcome the difficulties related to the pandemic by building a self-reliant economy, he may be in a serious dilemma as to whether to end the border blockage, diplomatic sources said.
Should North Korea resume its trade with China, the virus could spread in the nation, but should it keep suspending business with its closest and most influential ally in economic terms, it would be forced to give up obtaining essential supplies.
With Kim so far pledging to strengthen anti-epidemic measures, North Korea is unlikely to restart trade with China in the near future, apparently disappointing its citizens, many of whom want to acquire provisions and vaccines, the sources said.
If Kim fails to cope well with the situation, frustration would be pent-up among nationals, which, in the worst-case scenario, "could jeopardize" his family's dynasty that has continued since North Korea was established in 1948, one of them said.
"To avoid it, Kim, as the supreme leader, has been trying to make it look like he is dying to break through the status quo," he added.
North Korea claims no infection cases have been found at home, but it has cut off land traffic to and from its neighbors since early last year amid worries that the virus, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, could enter the country.
The traffic restrictions have stifled North Korea's trade with China, dealing a crushing blow to the broader economy. As North Korea depends on China for more than 90 percent of its trade, its citizens are believed to be unable to receive enough daily necessities.
Although North Korea and China marked the 60th anniversary of their treaty of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance on Sunday, the two nations have shown few signs of promoting negotiations on whether to reopen their border.
In addition to a prolonged sluggishness in business with China, agricultural devastation wrought by powerful typhoons and flooding last year has caused food shortage. North Korea's ruling Workers' Party has acknowledged the country has encountered a "food crisis."
One of the diplomatic sources said he now has little way of knowing the real conditions in North Korea, especially in areas outside the capital Pyongyang, but people in rural regions "must be in a cruel predicament."
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has warned that North Korea faces an uncovered food gap of about 860,000 tons, "equivalent to approximately 2.3 months of food use."
"If this gap is not adequately covered through commercial imports and/or food aid, households could experience a harsh lean period from August to October," it added.
At a ruling party meeting in June, Kim voiced concern over North Korea's food situation, saying it is "getting tense" for the people and instructing party officials to take "positive" measures to settle the problem, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Kim has also promised to supply nourishing food to all children across the country at the state's expense, KCNA reported.
In China's northeastern city of Dandong, the customs office near the border river with North Korea has been effectively closed. Restaurants and shops run by Koreans around the office have been shuttered, as trade with the neighboring nation has been choked off.
Seeing a town in North Korea from Dandong, residents were cultivating a vast field with hoes in June. Agricultural mechanization has not made much progress and fertilizer has been insufficient, suggesting food productivity will not improve soon.
As for coronavirus vaccines, North Korea has been reluctant to accept vaccination monitoring by a U.N.-backed COVAX facility, blurring the outlook for when the country can obtain them for its people through the platform.
North Korea was expected to receive 1.7 million doses of vaccine produced by Britain's AstraZeneca Plc by the end of May, but the plan has been postponed to later this year as the nation has been unwilling to follow the COVAX program's instructions.
The diplomatic sources said North Korea has been putting much more emphasis on tightening security along its border than on providing vaccines to its citizens, probably raising discontent with Kim's regime among them gradually.
Under such circumstances, Kim has been stepping up efforts to reinforce citizens' loyalty to him, the sources said.
For example, he has sacked senior ruling party members, including one of his close aides, over what he considers mishandling of an unspecified "great crisis" regarding the pandemic, while going on a diet recently.
"After losing 10 to 20 kilograms, he has been normally engaged in his political activities," said a South Korean lawmaker who attended a closed-door briefing by the National Intelligence Service, brushing aside speculation that he is suffering health problems.
A man in North Korea said during an interview with the official television late last month, "Seeing the respected general secretary looking emaciated, we, the people, were heartbroken," referring to Kim's formal title in the ruling party.
Such an unusual report pointing out his health condition indicates Kim's intention to give the impression that he has been "struggling to tackle the current challenges with the country's citizens," one of the sources said.
North Korea is seen to be vulnerable to infectious diseases against a backdrop of chronic shortages of food and medical equipment triggered by international economic sanctions aimed at thwarting its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.
Previously, it barred foreigners from entering the nation during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014.