By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) - The Red Cross called for an urgent exemption from sanctions on North Korea on Thursday to help prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus, following an epidemic in neighbouring China.
"We know that there is urgent need of personal protective gear and testing kits, items which will be vital to prepare for a possible outbreak," Xavier Castellanos, Asia Pacific director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies (IFRC) said in a statement.
An exemption allowing for a bank transfer to the IFRC country office in North Korea "is essential as a life-saving intervention," he added. "There is currently no other mode available for humanitarian intervention and we must act now."
International sanctions bar a wide range of business, trade, and other interactions with North Korea. The sanctions were imposed over the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, which were developed in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
North Korea has not confirmed any cases of the new coronavirus, but state media said the government was extending the quarantine period for people showing symptoms to 30 days, and all government institutions and foreigners living in the country were expected to comply "unconditionally."
Already one of the most closed-off countries in the world, North Korea has stopped airline flights and train service with its neighbours, established weeks-long mandatory quarantines for recently arrived foreigners, suspended international tourism, and imposed a near-complete lockdown on cross-border travel.
Some South Korean media outlets have reported multiple cases and possible deaths from the virus in North Korea, but World Health Organization officials based in Pyongyang told Voice of America that they have not been notified of any confirmed cases.
State media reported that North Korea's Red Cross Society had deployed to "relevant areas" around the country to conduct public education campaigns and to monitor people with possible symptoms.
"They are conducting information activities in various forms and by various methods at public places to introduce common medical knowledge about the epidemic and encourage people to give fuller play to the noble moral traits of helping and leading each other forward," state news agency KCNA reported.
According to the IFRC, its branch in North Korea had mobilised 500 volunteers, and was the only aid organisation with access to the four provinces closest to the border with China.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan & Simon Cameron-Moore)