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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 16)

Economy 07:13 May 16, 2022

Accept COVID-19 aid offer
North cannot tackle health crisis by going it alone

North Korea appears to be facing a more serious COVID-19 situation than previously thought. On Sunday, it reported 15 additional deaths from the coronavirus and 296,180 more people with fever symptoms detected between Friday evening and 6 p.m. Saturday. The tally came three days after the North announced its first official COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began over two years ago.

According to the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the new cases increased the total number of deaths to 42. The number of patients showing fever symptoms since late April also rose to 820,620. Among them, 496,030 have recovered and 324,550 are being treated, the agency said.

Medical experts in South Korea are questioning the accuracy of the numbers, since the North suffers a lack of testing kits and other equipment to confirm infection. For the same reason, the North has used the expression "fevered persons" instead of coronavirus patients or confirmed cases. This may imply that many more North Koreans have come down with COVID-19. The North could have also tried to deflate the numbers in a bid to downplay the seriousness of the public health crisis for political reasons.

Some critics argue that North Korean authorities have acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak belatedly, as the pandemic is turning into an endemic in many countries. Now the question is whether the North can bring the spread of the virus under control without any assistance or cooperation from the international community. Pyongyang claims that it can do that by going it alone. But many experts point out that the reclusive country has no capacity for overcoming the crisis on its own.

That's probably why North Korean leader Kim Jong-un described the COVID-19 situation as the "great turmoil since the country's founding." Kim was even quoted as saying that a "vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system" had been exposed. More worrisome is that COVID-19 may spread more rapidly from now on, considering a serious lack of treatment facilities and equipment as well as medical supplies. The coronavirus crisis, if not checked promptly and appropriately, could pose a grave threat to the Kim regime.

Against that backdrop, South Korea's new President Yoon Suk-yeol has offered to send COVID-19 vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea. The offer reflects Yoon's willingness to help the North with humanitarian aid, despite his campaign pledge to take a hardline stance on the North's nuclear weapons program. He softened his tone in his May 10 inaugural address, saying that the door to dialogue with Pyongyang will remain open. He added that the South is prepared to work with the international community to present an "audacious plan" to rebuild the North Korean economy if it takes steps toward denuclearization.

The Kim regime should accept Yoon's assistance offer in order to check the spread of the virus and ensure North Koreans' health. North Korea is one of the world's two countries which have not yet vaccinated their people against COVID-19. It has even refused to accept vaccines from the COVAX Facility, a global vaccine procurement mechanism.

We urge the North to focus on protecting its people from the pandemic, instead of continuing its development of nuclear weapons and ICBMs. It is regrettable that the North launched short-range ballistic missiles Thursday, the same day it confirmed the outbreak of the Omicron variant. The Kim regime should respond positively to Yoon's assistance proposal and resume dialogue with the South and the United States.
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