Seoul offers COVID-19 help to a hitherto unresponsive Pyongyang
by Guido Alberto Casanova

For South Korean President Yoon, “the door is always open for humanitarian aid, regardless of the political and military considerations of inter-Korean relations.” North Korean authorities have announced more than a million cases of “fever”. The crisis comes at a delicate time following North Korea’s latest nuclear tests and reports of a new, imminent launch.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – COVID-19 has finally reached the one country that is least prepared and the most vulnerable to all pandemic-related health, economic and social upheavals.

North Korea is now forced to deal with its first official wave of infections. According to government data, the country reported more than a million cases of “fever” in the space of a week.

For analysts, “fever” is a euphemism for COVID-19, a sign of the country’s poor diagnostic capacity. North Korea is in fact notorious for providing little information and the government has a monopoly on reporting what is happening in the country, which is hardly accessible to foreign media.

However, last week NK News reported that North Korean authorities had ordered residents to stay at home due to an unspecified national problem. A few days later, Korean Central Television (KCTV[*]) showed images of Kim Jong Un wearing a surgical mask while discussing “maximum emergency measures” in the fight against COVID-19.

The news is particularly worrying given the limitations of the country’s healthcare system and the general state of malnutrition of the population.

Furthermore, according to the World Health Organisation, North Korea has not yet received any vaccines and none of its citizens have been vaccinated. Over the weekend Kim described the infection as a “great disaster”.

Pyongyang's difficulties have not gone unnoticed, especially by its neighbours. In South Korea, the Office of the President on 13 May announced plans to offer medical aid to North Korea.

President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office just a week ago, said that he wants to send vaccines and medical equipment north of the 38th parallel.

In his first speech to the South Korean parliament yesterday, he said that “the door is always open for humanitarian aid, regardless of the political and military considerations of inter-Korean relations. If North Korean authorities respond positively, we will not spare our efforts to provide vaccines, medication, medical supplies and public health workers.”

However, attempts by South Korea’s Unification Ministry to reach out on this issue have so far been unsuccessful. While urging patience, a ministry spokesman confirmed today that the North had not indicated if it intends to accept the South’s offer.

A source in the Office of the President told Dong-a Ilbo that "We will wait and see while examining what we can [do] in collaboration with the international community.”

The outbreak of the epidemic in North Korea comes at a particularly delicate time for the stability of the peninsula.

In recent weeks, North Korea has increased its provocations. Its latest missile launch was carried out just five days ago, while the first news of the infection was announced by North Korean media.

In addition, a seventh nuclear test is reportedly imminent and it is likely to be a topic of discussion when US President Joe Biden meets President Yoon Suk-Yeol a few days from now.

However, there are no guarantees that South Korea’s offer of medical aid will help inter-Korean diplomatic relations.

With the borders closed since January 2020, North Korea has lived in isolation for more than two years and probably has little trust in Yoon, who ran on a tough policy towards the North in his election campaign.

North Korea’s request for aid to China seems to leave little hope for South Korea’s good will.

[*] KCTV is operated by the Korean Central Broadcasting Committee, a state-owned broadcaster.