Return the favor: S.Korea looks to U.S. for COVID-19 vaccine aid

Sangmi Cha
·3-min read
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul

By Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea hopes its ally the United States will help it tackle a shortage of coronavirus vaccine in return for test kits and masks Seoul sent to Washington earlier in the pandemic, the foreign minister said on Wednesday.

The government has drawn fire from the media for not doing enough to secure enough vaccines early, with just 3% of the population inoculated, due to tight global supply and limited access.

"We have been stressing to the United States that 'A friend in need is a friend indeed,'" the minister, Chung Eui-yong, told reporters at the Kwanhun Club of South Korean journalists.

He said South Korea had airlifted Washington a large volume of coronavirus test kits and face masks in the early stages of the pandemic "in the spirit of the special South Korea-U.S. alliance," despite tight domestic supply at the time.

"We are hoping that the United States will help us out with the challenges we are facing with the vaccines, based on the solidarity we demonstrated last year."

The allies were in talks, added Chung, who also flagged South Korea's potential contribution to preserving a global semiconductor supply chain that U.S. President Joe Biden is keen to maintain.

Diplomatic efforts have not yielded any concrete steps, however, as the talks with Washington are still in an early stage, health ministry official Son Young-rae told reporters.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment on discussions with South Korea, whose president, Moon Jae-in, is due to visit Washington for a summit with Biden next month.

"I'm not going to get into any private diplomatic communications with the Republic of Korea or any other country for that matter," department spokesman Ned Price told a regular news briefing.

While South Korea is an important and longstanding ally, the United States has said its first priority is vaccinating Americans, although it has promised to look into options to help other countries bolster their supplies.

"First and foremost we are focused at this stage on the vaccine vaccination efforts here at home," Price told the briefing.

"As we are in a more comfortable and confident position here at home with our own vaccination effort, as we've been able to address contingencies that may arise, I expect we may be able to do more."

South Korean opposition lawmaker Park Jin urged more aggressive vaccine diplomacy, calling for the government to invoke its free trade pact (FTA) with Washington to secure pharmaceutical products.

"The government needs to be more proactive," Park told Reuters.

"The FTA provides us a legal base to demand (vaccines) as it stipulates the two countries' commitment to promoting the development of, and facilitating access to, pharmaceutical products."

About 1.77 million people in South Korea have had their first dose of the AstraZeneca Plc or Pfizer vaccines. The low rate compares with a 40% vaccination rate in the United States, according to Reuters data https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/vaccination-rollout-and-access.

Tuesday's 731 new coronavirus infections, up from 549 cases a day earlier, took South Korea's tally to 115,926, with 1,806 deaths.

(Global vaccination tracker: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/vaccination-rollout-and-access)

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Interactive tracker of global virus spread: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/)

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(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Additional reporting by Joori Roh in Seoul and David Brunnstrom on Washington; Editing by Miyoung Kim, Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis)