North Korea accepts South Korea's offer of H1N1 flu medication

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has accepted South Korea's offer of drugs to stem an outbreak of H1N1 influenza, in what will be the first direct government aid since relations soured last year, officials said Dec. 10.

"North Korea informed our side today that it will accept our proposal to send Tamiflu," ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-Joo told Agence France Presse.

Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek said the South would send enough for 500,000 patients. "We'll provide it swiftly, without any conditions," Hyun told parliament.

The North announced for the first time Dec. 9 that it has several cases of swine flu, confirming outside reports of an outbreak in the secretive and impoverished communist state.

Humanitarian aid from the Seoul government was suspended after cross-border relations worsened last year, although Seoul funded assistance through private groups.

But President Lee Myung-Bak told officials on Dec. 8 to offer assistance quickly once an outbreak was officially confirmed in the North.

"Assistance must be provided swiftly as the disease could quickly spread in North Korea where conditions are not so good," Lee said.

Good Friends, a Seoul-based welfare group with cross-border contacts, reported Dec. 7 that the disease has been spreading rapidly in the North because Tamiflu is rare there.

Observers say the virus could pose a particular threat to the North because of malnutrition amid persistent food shortages and a lack of drugs.

The World Health Organization said it was working with Pyongyang to help stem the outbreak and assess the scope of infections. It said there are likely to be more cases than announced, because people who have mild symptoms are not tested.