President Yoon Suk-yeol plans to provide Covid-19 vaccines and other medical products for North Korean residents, Cheong Wa Dae Spokesperson Kang In-sun said on Friday.

“It is known that the number of suspected infections is surging in North Korea recently due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said in a written briefing. “We will discuss detailed ways of support with the North.”

Political watchers interpreted Kang’s remark as an extension of the new South Korean government’s opening the way for humanitarian aid immediately after North Korea confirmed its first Covid-19 case on Thursday, paying attention to Pyongyang’s response, as Seoul’s offer comes despite the North’s military provocation by launching missiles a day earlier.

According to presidential aides, the North has yet to reach out to the South. Still, Seoul will remain ready to respond should Pyongyang ask for assistance by separating humanitarian aid from military and security issues. Yoon’s plan to send vaccines to North Korea comes as health experts raised concerns that if the virus begins to spread in earnest, it will lead to an out-of-control disaster due to the poor medical environment.

In its second report on Friday, North Korea acknowledged that six people have died after a fever spread, affecting more than 350,000 people since last month. The report also noted that 180,000 people were under quarantine due to Covid-19-related symptoms.

While pointing out that there will be great chaos if North Korea's Covid-19 epidemic grows out of control, health experts stressed the need to provide humanitarian support.

A professor emphasized that the most important support would be sending vaccines.

"There are four major reasons Omicron's aggravation rate has dropped elsewhere -- vaccination, immunity from infection, treatment, and critical care technology," said Cheong Jae-hoon, a preventive medicine professor at Gachon University College of Medicine, appearing in Corona Fighters Live, a YouTube broadcast aired by The Doctors' Weekly, the sister paper of Korea Biomedical Review.

However, North Korea has none of the four conditions to reduce the Omicron's aggravation rate, meaning that the communist country has to block the Omicron virus without any outside help.

Professor Cheong noted that his biggest concern is the human casualties North Korea might suffer due to the Omicron spread.

"While North Korea will need a lot of help, I believe the most urgent help that North Korea requires is vaccine support," Cheong said. "Vaccination may not completely block the Omicron outbreak in North Korea, but it will help to reduce the number of deaths and minimize damages."

Cheong pointed out that South Korea still has a sufficient vaccine stockpile to help North Korea.

"I think South Korea can use the surplus vaccine as leverage to improve inter-Korean relations," Cheong said. "We should not turn away from the situation in North Korea despite the recent tension between the two Koreas, not least because Covid-19 spread in the North will also affect the South."

However, Cheong expressed concerns over North Korea's ability to maintain the quality of the vaccines.

Pointing out that North Korea may not maintain the vaccines at the right temperature, Cheong suggested SK Bioscience's GBP 510 or Novavax's vaccine, which can be stored at room temperature, maybe reasonable candidates for support.

On Friday, Korea added 32,451 new Covid-19 infections, bringing the total caseload to 17,727,086, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

The agency reported 52 Covid-19 deaths, bringing the total to 23,606. In addition, the number of critically ill patients came to 347, down seven from a day earlier.

With Korea's new daily infections on a downward trend in recent weeks, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min said that the government would add 230 international flights by next month to meet the growing demand for travel in the wake of an easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

"The government will also recognize negative rapid antigen test results for travelers boarding flights to South Korea, on top of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results currently allowed, from May 23," Lee said. "From June, Korea will increase the time required for international arrivals to undergo a PCR test from one day to three days upon their entry into South Korea."

As of Friday, 44.56 million people, or 86.8 percent of the 52-million population, had been fully vaccinated, according to KDCA. In addition, about 33.2 million people had received their first booster shots, representing 64.7 percent, and 3.19 million people, or 6.2 percent, had their second booster shots.

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