By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea will issue a call this week at the World Economic Forum for COVID-19 vaccines and other medical help for North Korea, even if that means exemptions from U.N. sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme, a senior official said on Tuesday.
Secretive North Korea went for more than two years insisting it had no COVID but it confirmed its first outbreak nearly two weeks ago. It has since reported some 2.95 million people showing fever symptoms - it has limited testing capacity for COVID - and 68 deaths, and has imposed a sweeping lockdown and other anti-virus measures.
"Sending vaccines is a priority as the vaccination rate is believed to be near zero in the North," Na Kyung-won, a special envoy of the South Korean president, told Reuters shortly before leaving for the forum in Davos, Switzerland, where she will lead South Korea's delegation.
Na said she would discuss help for North Korea with Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the global vaccine alliance that operates a vaccine-sharing programme, as well as other political and economic leaders.
"If direct support is not doable, we can participate in projects run by international organisations like the ICRC. We'll take a pragmatic approach," she said.
Na said she aimed to build support for temporary U.N. sanctions exemptions to allow the shipment of fuel and generators to North Korean to facilitate vaccine storage.
The sanctions relief was suggested recently by a former North Korean diplomat who now serves in South Korea's parliament.
"I agree that we need to get exemptions if needed ... though it's concerning that if North Korea continues weapons provocations, it could hamper creating a positive sentiment in the international community," she said.
Last Saturday, South Korea's new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, and his visiting U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, reaffirmed their willingness to help North Korea with vaccines.
But Yoon and Biden said neither country had received a response from North Korea to offers of help.
With Russia's invasion of Ukraine expected to dominate proceedings in Davos, Na said she and her delegation would explore ways to help end the war and help Ukraine recover.
"Our government is seeking to play a greater and more responsible role on regional and global issues," she said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel)