South Korea plans to provide vaccines to North Korea as neighbour's Covid-19 situation 'appears serious'

PHOTO: Reuters

South Korea plans to provide Covid-19 vaccines and other medical supplies to the North, President Yoon Suk-yeol's office said on Friday (May 13), a day after the neighbouring country confirmed its first outbreak of coronavirus.

"We will discuss detailed plans for assistance with North Korea," Yoon's spokesperson said.

Yoon told reporters later on Friday he plans to propose holding working-level talks with North Korea via the country's unification ministry which handles inter-Korean affairs, South Korea's News1 said.

Yonhap news agency reported the South Korean president's office said that North Korea's Covid-19 situation appears serious.

Seoul's statement comes as at least one person confirmed to have Covid-19 has died in North Korea and hundreds of thousands have shown fever symptoms, state media said on Friday, offering hints at the potentially dire scale of country's first confirmed outbreak since the pandemic began.

Some 187,800 people are currently being treated in isolation after a fever of unidentified origin has "explosively spread nationwide" since late April, the official KCNA news agency reported.

Around 350,000 people have shown signs of that fever, including 18,000 who newly reported such symptoms on Tuesday alone, KCNA said.

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About 162,200 have been treated so far, but it did not specify how many had tested positive for Covid-19.

Cheong Seong-Chang at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank, said a major military parade held in Pyongyang on April 25 might have "sent Omicron spreading across the country".

The event at Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung Square featured 12,000 military personnel and a large crowd of spectators. Cheong suggested the parade showed Pyongyang was "overconfident in its quarantine ability … at a time when the virus has spreading in its neighbour China".

At least six people who showed fever symptoms died, with one of those case confirmed to have contracted the Omicron variant of the virus, KCNA said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited the antivirus command centre on Tuesday to check the situation and responses after declaring "gravest state emergency" and ordering a national lockdown on Thursday.

He "criticised that the simultaneous spread of fever with the capital area as a centre shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system we have already established," KCNA said.

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Kim singled out actively isolating and treating people having fever as a top priority, while calling for devising scientific treatment methods and tactics "at a lightning tempo" and bolstering measures to supply medications.

In another dispatch, KCNA said health authorities were trying to organise testing and treatment systems and bolster disinfection work.

The rapid spread of the virus highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that lacks medical resources, and had refused international help with vaccinations and kept its borders shut.

Analysts said the outbreak could threaten to deepen the isolated country's already tough food situation this year, as the lockdown would hamper its "all-out fight" against drought and the mobilisation of labour.

"The spread of the virus is too serious for the North's healthcare system to cope with and there is no other alternatives to imposing lockdowns," said political science professor Kim Yong-Hyun of the Dongguk University.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.