By John Ikani
US President Joe Biden on Saturday said America had offered Covid-19 vaccines to Pyongyang but “got no response” despite a spiralling epidemic in North Korea, where nearly 2.5 million people have fallen sick with “fever”.
“The answer is yes we’ve offered vaccines, not only to North Korea but to China as well,” Biden said at a joint press conference in Seoul with the South Korean president. “And we’re prepared to do that immediately. We’ve gotten no response.”
North Korea has long been isolated from the rest of the world, and the secretive government did not report any coronavirus cases for much of the first two years of the pandemic.
But in recent weeks, nearly 2.5 million people have been sickened by “fever” in North Korea and it is under a nationwide lockdown, with dozens of recorded deaths according to the country’s state media.
It is thought to be particularly vulnerable because it has little testing or vaccine supply.
Experts have warned of a major health crisis in the North, which has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems.
The impoverished country has poorly equipped hospitals, few intensive care units and no Covid treatment drugs or mass-testing capability.
State media has recommended remedies such as herbal tea, gargling salt-water and taking painkillers such as ibuprofen, while the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has accused officials of bungling the distribution of national medicine reserves.
China is also struggling to control a wave of infections from the highly transmissible Omicron variant, with tens of millions of people under some form of lockdown.
Biden and new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol expressed concern Saturday over North Korea’s spiraling COVID-19 outbreak.
“The ROK and the US are willing to work with the international community to provide assistance to the DPRK to combat the virus,” they said in a joint statement.
The US and South Korean presidents also agreed to deploy American weapons if necessary to deter North Korea and to increase military drills – which had been scaled down in recent years in an effort to reduce tensions.
The announcement is likely to enrage Pyongyang, which views the drills as rehearsals for invasion.