|Sputnik V vaccine / Reuters-Yonhap|
By Kang Seung-woo
Gangwon Province Governor Choi Moon-soon's proposal of manufacturing Russian COVID-19 vaccines in South Korea and providing them to North Korea is a feasible way to help normalize inter-Korean ties, according to Pyongyang watchers, Tuesday.
However, they added that Seoul needs to come up with a creative and bold strategy to make such "vaccine diplomacy" happen, as the North is seeking to reduce dependence on its southern neighbor for humanitarian support and economic cooperation, as evidenced by its snubbing of the government's repeated calls for inter-Korean economic and public health cooperation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Gangwon Province Governor Choi Moon-soon / Korea Times file|
In November, South Korean biotech firm GL Rapha reached an agreement with the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the country's sovereign wealth fund, to produce over 150 million doses per year of Sputnik V, the world's first registered vaccine against COVID-19. Many nations, including South Korea, are now scrambling to get Sputnik V since it gained recognition from the respected British medical journal. The Lancet, which said the vaccine was safe and highly effective. GL Rapha's manufacturing factory is located in Chuncheon, the capital of the province.
Inter-Korean relations have been weak since February 2019 when nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea ended without a deal.
"The vaccine is a Russian product, and if Russia meddles in the provision, the idea stands a high chance of the South Korean government making a pitch," said Hong Min, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.
"It is much more specific than the government's call for inter-Korean public healthcare cooperation."
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, also said the proposal carries significance.
"Given that President Moon Jae-in stressed the need for Northeast Asian countries' cooperation on healthcare, and Unification Minister Lee In-young has offered to provide COVID-19 vaccines to North Korea, Choi's proposal is in line with their calls," Yang said.
"If the provision meets relevant international regulations, it could work to South Korea's advantage."
Although the North Korean regime claims the country has no coronavirus cases, it has reportedly submitted an application to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from the main global alliance helping lower-income countries with inoculations.
However, it remains to be seen whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will approve the proposal, the observers noted.
"The sticking point is whether North Korea will accept vaccines funded by South Korea," Hong said.
According to him, the North Korean leader wants to break away from the existing pattern of inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation, under which the North mostly becomes a recipient, with its dependence on the South increasing.
"With its leader sticking to the stance, who among his officials dares to advise him to accept the offer?" Hong added.
During its recent party congress last month, Kim made it clear that inter-Korean ties can only be improved if South Korea stops hostile acts toward the North such as joint military exercises with the U.S. and imports of military hardware.
"Even if Kim expresses his appreciation for the offer due to Russia's mediation, he can also reject it, citing the hostile acts which would screw things up," Yang said.
"In that respect, the members of the South Korean government need to put their heads together for the vaccine provision plan to come to fruition."