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South Korea willing to share COVID-19 vaccines with North, PM says

Vaccines are an expensive drug and if North Korea cannot afford them we are willing to help, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Wednesday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
"Vaccines are an expensive drug and if North Korea cannot afford them we are willing to help," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Wednesday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- South Korea is willing to share COVID-19 vaccines with North Korea as part of an effort to resume relations with its nuclear-armed neighbor, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Wednesday.

South Korea was slow to begin ordering vaccines, but it has secured enough supplies from global producers to inoculate 56 million people, more than enough to cover its population of 52 million.

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The government may also procure vaccines for another 20 million people from U.S. drugmaker Novavax through a deal with local pharmaceutical company SK Bioscence, President Moon Jae-in said last week.

"Vaccines are an expensive drug and if North Korea cannot afford them we are willing to help," Chung said at a policy briefing with international correspondents in downtown Seoul. "South Korea wants to cooperate with the North in many ways, including health and humanitarian issues."

RELATED U.N. report: More than 45% of North Koreans undernourished

South Korean health officials have announced that vaccinations are scheduled to begin in late February, and the prime minister said the government is aiming to achieve herd immunity by November at the latest, with leftover doses potentially going to North Korea.

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"If we have additional vaccines that may not be used, they can be shared with other countries, including North Korea," Chung said. "We will keep this option open."

However, Chung said that no communication with North Korea about vaccines has taken place.

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"Discussions with North Korea are not normalized as of now," he said. "There have not been talks or any proper conversation."

Relations have been strained on the Korean Peninsula over the past several months, with North Korea cutting off all communication lines with the South and blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office in June.

North Korea, which closed its borders in late January to prevent the spread of COVID-19, continues to claim that it has had no confirmed cases of the infectious disease. As of Jan. 8, North Korea had conducted tests for more than 13,000 people and reported that all results were negative, according to the World Health Organization.

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Many outside experts have doubted North Korea's claim, but Chung said he had no information to indicate the secretive country was hiding any outbreaks.

"During all of 2020, North Korea went into complete lockdown to prevent any spread of the virus," Chung said. "North Korea's claim may be true. I have no evidence to suspect their argument."

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The prime minister said South Korea is aiming to resume talks with North Korea and is hoping that the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden can help push forward the long-stalled peace process on the Korean Peninsula.

Nuclear negotiations have been at a standstill since a February 2019 summit between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, failed to reach an agreement.

"We cannot have peace without the denuclearization process," Chung said. "We need to normalize relations and restart inter-Korean talks. Such talks can be done in close coordination between South Korea and the United States."

Chung said the Biden administration would likely take a different approach to the top-down summit diplomacy that produced three high-profile meetings between Trump and Kim but left little lasting impact on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

He added that he was encouraged by recent comments from U.S. administration officials that indicated North Korea would remain a key foreign policy priority.

New U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at his Senate confirmation hearing last week that Washington would review its "entire approach and policy toward North Korea" and would look at "what can be effective in terms of increasing pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table."

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki added on Friday that the United States has a "vital interest" in deterring North Korea's nuclear ambitions and vowed that the Biden administration would work in close consultation with South Korea and other allies.

"It is fortunate that [administration officials] are expressing interest in North Korea," Chung said. "Indifference is the biggest issue."

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