North Korea has reportedly been scrambling to secure large amounts of COVID-19 vaccine since the United States pledged to provide the South Korean military with vaccines during last month’s US-South Korean summit. The authorities apparently plan to inoculate the military first with any proven vaccines they can get their hands on, regardless of country of origin.

According to a high-ranking Daily NK source in North Korea on Friday, the authorities late last month ordered cadre-level North Koreans residing overseas to secure vaccines. The order instructed them to quickly send as much vaccine as they could, even if this meant Chinese-made vaccines.

In fact, North Korean authorities have long hesitated to adopt Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines such as those produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm.

In fact, North Korean authorities reportedly banned the use of Chinese-made medical supplies in major hospitals in Pyongyang after a high-ranking economic official died soon after receiving a Chinese-made injection. Chinese-made vaccines have apparently been excluded from the country’s vaccine sample research as well.

North Korean authorities appear to have repeatedly expressed distrust of Chinese-made medical items; however, the recent US-South Korean summit may have promoted the change of heart evident in Pyongyang’s latest order.

Immediately after the summit on May 21, US President Joe Biden said Washington would provide vaccines for 550,000 South Korean military personnel.

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Kim Jong Un at the leadership podium during the Party Foundation Day military parade in Pyongyang on Oct. 10, 2020. / Image: KCNA

Daily NK’s source further said that North Korean military authorities have taken the South Korean military’s COVID-19 inoculations as a “psychological threat.”

Precisely how many COVID-19 cases and deaths there have been in the North Korean military remains unknown, but statements by multiple sources suggest about 20% to 25% of the North Korean military’s total strength is currently in quarantine.

With the rise in the number of personnel in quarantine with COVID-19 symptoms, some units that were operating on a three-shift basis have gone to two shifts.

Meanwhile, North Korea was reportedly planning to make soldiers a priority group for inoculations if the country received vaccines from the COVAX Facility, an international initiative to jointly purchase vaccines. 

North Korean authorities considered prioritizing soldiers with the growth in the number of suspected COVID-19 cases in the military outstripping the civilian population due to communal living conditions at military bases.

A high-ranking North Korean source claims, however, that North Korea balked when the World Health Organization (WHO) demanded Pyongyang provide prior notification of its vaccination plans and allow post-vaccination monitoring in return for the vaccines. 

Judging it difficult to vaccinate its soldiers with vaccines from the WHO, and with South Korea beginning to vaccinate its own soldiers, North Korean authorities seem to have started efforts to secure vaccines for the country’s military.

In fact, North Korea could hasten its inoculations based on the fact that the authorities have ordered North Korean diplomats, intelligence agents and traders to make vaccine acquisition a top priority.

“With the number of suspected cases and deaths among not only soldiers, but also civilians, on the rise, the mood inside the country due to the coronavirus isn’t good,” said the source. “I think the introduction of vaccines may be hastened because the authorities are taking active measures.”

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to