(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with more details)
By Lee Haye-ah
SEOUL, May 16 (Yonhap) -- President Yoon Suk-yeol said Monday he will spare no effort to help North Korea cope with a massive outbreak of the coronavirus, offering to send vaccines and other necessary supplies if Pyongyang agrees to accept.
Yoon made the offer for the second time in less than a week as the North struggles to curb rapidly spreading infections after acknowledging an outbreak last week for the first time since the pandemic began. Leader Kim Jong-un has described the worsening situation as "a great upheaval" rarely seen since the country's founding.
"We must not hold back on providing necessary assistance to the North Korean people, who are exposed to the threat of the coronavirus," Yoon said during his first budget speech at the National Assembly.
"If the North Korean authorities accept, we will not spare any necessary support, such as medicine, including COVID-19 vaccines, medical equipment and health care personnel," he said.
North Korea has remained silent on Yoon's offer despite issuing daily reports on the devastating toll of the outbreak, including the numbers of deaths and suspected infections. The country has no known vaccination program and a poorly resourced health care system, raising concerns of a humanitarian crisis.
Yoon said in his speech that he has repeatedly stated his will to provide humanitarian aid to the North regardless of the political and military situation in inter-Korean relations.
He also noted the security situation is becoming increasingly serious, with North Korea advancing its nuclear weapons program by the day and continuing to test missiles designed to carry nuclear weapons.
He recalled that North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles last Thursday, two days after his inauguration, and showed signs of preparing for another nuclear test.
"We must build a peace that is not a mere formality but a sustainable peace under which the process of North Korea's denuclearization and inter-Korean trust building form a virtuous cycle," he said.
Yoon's address came days before his first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden set for Saturday in Seoul where North Korea is expected to feature high on the agenda.
Yoon said the summit will also cover economic security issues, such as the strengthening of bilateral cooperation on global supply chains through the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
"It will include not only ways to stabilize supply chains but digital economy, carbon neutrality and various issues related to economic security," he said.
"In order for our government to expand economic security cooperation and lead the creation of international rules together with key nations, the help of the National Assembly is desperately needed," he added.
Yoon appealed to the National Assembly for bipartisan cooperation at a time when the country is facing difficult conditions at home and abroad amid a rapid change in the post-Cold War political and economic order.
In particular, he noted that industries and resources are being "weaponized" and supply chains being hoarded by "blocs," posing a major challenge to South Korea's export-driven economy.
"Right now in the Republic of Korea, more than ever, we need the partnership of Churchill and Attlee, who willingly joined hands to overcome a common crisis even though the political values they pursued were different," he said, citing Britain's example during World War II.
The reference to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wartime coalition government came as Yoon faces a hostile National Assembly where the main opposition Democratic Party holds an absolute majority.
Yoon is also known to consider Churchill to be his role model.
In outlining the government's 59.4 trillion-won (US$46.1 billion) extra budget proposal, he said the bill aims to fully compensate small merchants for their losses under COVID-19 business restrictions, expand financial support for COVID-19 testing and treatment, and support low-income families and other vulnerable groups.
"I earnestly request the cooperation of the National Assembly so that the extra budget can be confirmed at an early date," Yoon said, noting that the proposal offers between 6 million won and 10 million won each to 3.7 million small merchants.
Yoon also called for parliamentary cooperation for reforms in the pension system, labor and education.
Specifically, he said pension reforms are needed for a sustainable social welfare system, labor reforms to improve the country's industrial competitiveness, and education reforms to give students a fair education that meets the level of technological advances.
"If reforms in pensions, labor and education are not pursued now, they will threaten our society's sustainability," Yoon said.
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