North Korea has continued to import leaf tobacco from China, according to the Chinese government, even though Pyongyang has banned smoking nationwide in public places since late last year.

North Korea has closed its borders with China and Russia since early 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but the latest data, released Tuesday, indicates cigarettes are deemed a necessity in North Korea that must be imported amid limited trade.

Photo taken from the Chinese border city of Dandong on June 6, 2021, shows a North Korean soldier patrolling on Hwanggumpyong Island in the Yalu River. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Analysts say the country's state-run companies have bought leaf tobacco from China, with total sales accounting for around 30 percent of China's exports of the product in June.

In November, North Korea enacted the "tobacco-prohibition law." Legal and social controls on production and sales of cigarettes have been tightened, while penalties have been imposed on those violating the law.

At a ruling party meeting in June, meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the food situation in the nation is "getting tense," as the country's agricultural sector was devastated by powerful typhoons and flooding last year.

North Korea, however, appears not to have imported food products from China last month, while it purchased rubber, organic chemical and plastic goods from the neighbor, which is known as Pyongyang's closest and most influential ally in economic terms.

For two months from March, North Korea imported chemical fertilizer and related items from China, as the nation's economy languished due largely to food shortages. North Korea depends on China for more than 90 percent of its trade.

North Korea said earlier this year in a report to the United Nations that it has faced its worst food crisis in more than a decade, amid fears that its citizens have encountered serious difficulties in obtaining daily essentials.

People hold up parasols and folding fans for shade as they walk under the sun in Pyongyang on July 20, 2021. (Kyodo)

In another development, North Korea's official media has said extreme heat continues in the country, calling for caution against heatstroke. Some pundits warn that drought would deal a further blow to the nation's agricultural sector.

North Korea claims it has confirmed no coronavirus infections at home. But it 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, the country barred foreigners from entering it during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014.

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