(ATTN: ADDS info on minister's address)
By Yi Wonju
SEOUL, March 2 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will make preparations to expand anti-epidemic cooperation with North Korea, the unification ministry said Monday, a day after President Moon Jae-in called for inter-Korean health care cooperation amid the global spread of the new coronavirus.
"Our government will prepare for inter-Korean cooperation in health care, prevention of diseases, natural disasters, climate change and other fields when conditions are ripe," Yoh Sang-key, the ministry's spokesperson, said in a regular press briefing earlier in the day.
On Sunday, Moon proposed health care cooperation with the North in an address commemorating the 1919 Independence Movement, saying the Korean people would be "safer" when the two sides respond together to infectious diseases and disasters in border areas as well as climate change on the Korean Peninsula.
"Our understanding is that President Moon has emphasized the need for cooperation with North Korea and neighboring countries like China, Japan and Southeast Asian nations in responding together to unconventional security threats such as the COVID-19 virus," the spokesperson said.
The official added, however, that there has been no request for assistance from the North and the two sides have not held discussions on the issue yet.
North Korea has claimed there have been no cases of coronavirus infection on its soil, but the country has been intensifying preventive efforts including tightening its border with virus-stricken neighboring China.
Concerns are growing that the North could be more vulnerable to the highly contagious virus that has killed more than 2,000 people in China alone, as it lacks key medical supplies to diagnose and treat infected people.
On Monday, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul also called for efforts to expand inter-Korean cooperation and dialogue in an address commemorating the 51st anniversary of the founding of the ministry.
"The situation on the Korean Peninsula is not easy as we face the COVID-19 virus situation amid a prolonged lull in relations between the two Koreas," he said. "However, peace is not given to us but rather something we must work to achieve."
The minister also stressed that the inter-Korean cooperation projects the ministry is promoting such as allowing individual trips to the North and reconnecting cross-border railways are "feasible and beneficial to both sides in the current situation."
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