North Korea has confirmed for the first time that it has found cases of the H1N1 flu virus. South Korea is treating the issue as a matter above politics, saying it is ready to send unconditional aid to help fight the outbreak.
North Korea confirmed Wednesday it has at least nine cases of the H1N1 flu, commonly known as swine flu.
A report from the official Korean Central News Agency says the cases were found in Pyongyang and in Sinuiju, near the Chinese border, one of the few places where the isolated North has contact with the outside world. Officials from the North's health ministry are quoted as saying the country is strengthening quarantine, prevention and treatment measures.
South Korea had been offering assistance even before Wednesday's announcement. On Wednesday, Chun Hae-sung, spokesman for the Unification Ministry in Seoul, repeated that the South is ready to act quickly.
He says the South's government is drawing up a specific plan to assist North Korea on swine flu as soon as possible, on a humanitarian basis with no conditions.
The South Korean offer is a rare moment in the last two years of the North-South relationship. The South has cut off just about all other aid to the North until Pyongyang takes concrete steps toward ending its nuclear weapons programs.
Kwon Jun-Wook, a swine flu specialist at South Korea's Health Ministry, warns the virus can hit a poor and isolated country like the North hard.
He says it is typical for a closed nation like North Korea to have an epidemic start later than other countries. Once it does start, though, a country with such a poor infrastructure can have a higher rate of infection, and even mortality.
South Korea's medical system is vastly more advanced and equipped than that of the North, and 117 people have died here so far of swine flu.
Aid organizations are concerned about how far the virus may progress in the North. Lee Sung-young is the director of the Buddhist aid group Good Friends, which operates in the North.
He says North Korea's chronic, severe food shortages have weakened its citizens' immune systems. Many people do not have clean water, he says, and hospitals lack even basic medicine and equipment.
South Korea's priority is likely to be providing some of those basic medical supplies. Seoul is also likely to boost North Korea's supply of the drug Tamiflu, to treat infections - beginning at the jointly run industrial zone in the North Korean city of Kaesong.