President Joe Biden said North Korea hasn’t taken the US up on an offer to provide Covid-19 vaccines, despite an outbreak that a White House official described as worrying.
“We’ve offered vaccines, not only to North Korea, but to China as well. We are prepared to do that immediately. We have gotten no response,” Biden told reporters following a meeting Saturday in Seoul with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.
The US is concerned about the Covid-19 situation in North Korea and is willing to provide Pyongyang with assistance, a White House official told reporters earlier Saturday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the leaders’ meeting, said the US was sensitive to the serious situation North Korea is dealing with and had made it clear that it was ready to engage in talks without preconditions. The official said the US hoped the nation would allow maximum support at a time of severe crisis.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared a state of emergency and mobilized troops to head off the spread of what the state calls a “malicious” epidemic, but there have been no signs his regime has or will reach out to the outside world for aid.
The country’s media has avoided using the word “Covid” as North Korea likely doesn’t have enough testing kits to confirm the cases. A recent United Nations report said North Korea and Eritrea are the only two countries in the world that have not administered vaccines.
More than 219,030 cases of fever were reported between Thursday and Friday, bringing the total number of infections to more than 2.46 million, the official Korean Central News Agency said on Saturday. The death toll from the current round of “fevers” rose to 66, it said.
Kim convened a meeting Saturday to discuss disinfection measures to fight the pandemic, while the politburo reported to the leader that the spread has gradually been contained and the number of deaths has decreased sharply.
Allowing foreign aid workers into the country brings risks for Kim, because their arrival could be seen as a sign his government has lost control of virus management, which could raise questions at home about his rule.
Read more: North Korea Not Seeking Help for Covid ‘Crisis,’ Groups Say
A spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council said COVAX determines vaccine allocations, but to date, North Korea has refused all donations. The US will continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid, including medicines, to North Korea, she said.
White House officials didn’t say if the Covid aid would be offered without conditions or with strings attached. Then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said May 13 that Washington had no plans to share Covid vaccines with North Korea from US supplies.
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