North Korea receives offers of aid to fight COVID as it runs out of vaccines

People wearing protective face masks walk amid concerns over the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in front of Pyongyang Railway Station in Pyongyang, North Korea on April 27, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo. Mandatory Credit Kyodo/via REUTERS/File Photo

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SEOUL, May 13 (Reuters) – North Korea is facing its first confirmed outbreak of COVID-19 without a known vaccination program, sparking fresh calls for the government to accept aid that could save lives, help protect its struggling economy and possibly lead to a diplomatic overture.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s office said on Friday it intended to help the North, including by providing vaccines, and that specific measures would be discussed with Pyongyang.

North Korea is not known to have imported or administered COVID-19 vaccines and is one of only two countries that has not launched a vaccination campaign. Until Thursday’s reports from state news agency KCNA, it had never reported a confirmed case of the disease.

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His unexpected admission that infections were “exploding” across the country led some observers to hope that Pyongyang could soon accept vaccines.

“The unveiling of the outbreak via KCNA, which is a primary channel for external communication, indicates that North Korea may seek support for vaccines,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies. Seoul Koreans. “Isolation and control are not enough to overcome the crisis without vaccines.”

Others said it is still unclear whether North Korea’s stance is softening and that there are many obstacles with geopolitical implications.

Some analysts say “vaccine diplomacy” with North Korea could ease tensions in other areas such as the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“If inter-Korean cooperation materializes, it would help defuse military tensions and reopen talks, and could lead to humanitarian exchanges such as reuniting separated families,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the center. North Korean Studies from the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

But the politicization of aid may also be a major reason why North Korea has been reluctant to agree.

Pyongyang might be more likely to reach out to its allies in Beijing first, Cheong said, although Pyongyang had turned down an earlier offer of 3 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Chinese company Sinovac Biotech.

“If the situation gets more out of control, it will be difficult to refuse Western support,” he said.

Authorities in Pyongyang appeared suspicious of receiving only a limited amount of vaccines and then being pressured to accept more, an independent United Nations human rights investigator said in February.

South Korean officials have said the North does not want vaccines from Anglo-Swedish Sinovac or Astrazeneca, preferring American products Moderna and Pfizer, and talks with global vaccine-sharing program COVAX have stalled. because the North had refused to accept compensation. clauses concerning side effects.

“But that was before the epidemic, and now they are in an emergency situation,” Kwon Young-se, the South Korean candidate for the post of unification minister responsible for inter-Korean relations, said Thursday during a meeting. a confirmation parliamentary hearing.

If North Korea agrees, the international vaccine-sharing program COVAX can provide doses to help the country catch up with international vaccination targets, said a spokesperson for Gavi, the charity that helps run the program.

Thae Young-ho, a former North Korean diplomat turned South Korean lawmaker, called on Yoon to seek temporary exemptions from sanctions at his upcoming summit with US President Joe Biden to allow the shipment of fuel and generators from electricity in the North.

“Everyone is talking about supporting vaccines, but North Korea doesn’t have the infrastructure to keep vaccines in cold storage or the energy to keep the system going,” he said. “It’s like giving rice to a household that doesn’t have a stove and firewood.”

Washington said Thursday it supports aid to North Korea, but currently has no plans to share vaccines.

“We urge the DPRK to work with the international community to facilitate the rapid vaccination of its population,” a State Department spokesperson told Reuters, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Republic. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

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Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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