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Minister hopes NK agrees to COVID-19 cooperation

Unification Minister Lee In-young (Yonhap)
Unification Minister Lee In-young (Yonhap)

Inter-Korean relations could improve in the coming year, and Pyongyang may respond to Seoul’s proposal on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Unification Minister Lee In-young predicted Tuesday, saying the situation on the Korean Peninsula was at a tipping point.

Lee made the remarks during an interview with local radio broadcaster CBS on Tuesday morning, assessing that the tension between the two Koreas had eased from its peak in early June, when the North demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in its border town of Kaesong. Since then, the North has held off military action against the South, and there has been an exchange of letters between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he added.

“As the US presidential election is over, the situation will move toward a thawing (of relations) after the North’s eighth party congress in January and the inauguration of Joe Biden as the US president,” he said. Lee added that the situation on the Korean Peninsula was at a “tipping point” for change and was making a “U-turn,” though gradually and slowly.

When asked whether Pyongyang had responded to Seoul’s proposal on providing coronavirus treatments and vaccines, Lee said there had been no direct response from the reclusive regime yet. 

“Until the North’s 80-day campaign is completed and their policy is put together at the party congress in January, we cannot expect any sort of communication or exchanges for now,” he said. “But I am certain the North has checked our intention and I expect to see an opening of possibilities after January.”

The North is set to hold the eighth congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in January, which will be the first party congress in five years. North Korean leader Kim has said he will announce a new five-year economic development plan at the rare congress. In October, Pyongyang waged an all-out “80-day campaign” to revive the country’s ailing economy and attain its goals before the congress next year.

Responding to criticism that Lee’s idea of sharing coronavirus treatments and vaccines with the North is untimely as Seoul has yet to secure a vaccine for itself, he stressed that protecting the North from COVID-19 is directly linked to making South Korea safer.

“It is more urgent to secure vaccines for our own use,” he said. “But I think there are enough treatments and test kits.”

The Unification Ministry on Tuesday stressed the need for joint responses with North Korea in dealing with infectious diseases like COVID-19, but added that it had not yet consulted with health officials in detail on procuring vaccines for North Korea.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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