By David Brunnstrom and Josh Smith
WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) - The United States is "deeply concerned" about the possible impact of a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea and is prepared to facilitate efforts by U.S. and international organizations contain the spread of the virus there, the State Department said on Thursday.
"We strongly support and encourage the work of U.S. and international aid and health organizations to counter and contain the spread of coronavirus in the DPRK," spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said after the Red Cross called for an urgent exemption to sanctions on Pyongyang to help prevent a coronavirus outbreak.
"The United States is ready and prepared to expeditiously facilitate the approval of assistance from these organizations," Ortagus added in a statement.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said earlier that a sanctions exemption allowing for a bank transfer to the IFRC country office in North Korea was "essential as a life-saving intervention."
It said there was an urgent need for personal protective gear and testing kits to prepare for a possible outbreak in North Korea, which borders China where the virus was first identified.
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 programs, which were developed in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The United States has led international efforts to push North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons but has failed to persuade the North Koreans to return to the negotiating table after they walked away from talks in Stockholm in October.
The talks have stalled since last year over an inability to reconcile North Korea's demands for sanctions relief and other concessions and U.S. demands for North Korea to denuclearize.
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 neighbors, 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.
According to the IFRC, its branch in North Korea had mobilized 500 volunteers, and was the only aid organization with access to the four provinces closest to the border with China.
(Reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul and Eric Beech and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alistair Bell)