North Korea sent out a nationwide alert in recent days about the apparent worsening spread of H1N1 flu there, according to an aid group with contacts in the country.
The notice by the Seoul-based Buddhist aid group Good Friends follows the South Korean government's shipment of 400,000 doses of the flu treatment Tamiflu and 100,000 doses of the treatment Relenza to its impoverished neighbor earlier this month amid fears that a delayed response to the disease in the North could lead to serious consequences for the South.
Good Friends said this week that North Korean officials had issued a statement that said patients suffering from the disease should be given priority. The group said the statement was of a type issued only twice before, for seriously wounded soldiers during the 1950-1953Korean War and for a deadly skirmish with South Korea in 2002.
The true picture within highly restrictive North Korea is difficult to determine. Officials there couldn't be reached.
On Dec. 9, North Korea's official Korea Central News Agency confirmed that nine people had contracted the epidemic, also known as swine flu, in the capital of Pyongyang and the city of Sinuiju.
South Korean officials, who met with their North Korean counterparts during the flu-treatment shipments, said they were unclear on the situation. Lee Jong-joo, a deputy spokeswoman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said that the fact that North Korea officially disclosed it is fighting the epidemic suggests it could be serious.
"North Korean officials we met at that time said the country is setting up a tight disease control system and getting itself ready for an outbreak in the country," she said Wednesday.
North Korean officials were "very grateful" for the South's donated flu treatment, said Kim Young-il, a manager at the ministry's humanitarian aid team.
South Korea's aid to the North has dwindled since President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008. Mr. Lee tied aid to the progress in talks to halt North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Talks have been slowed by Pyongyang's delaying tactics.
Amid recent peace overtures by North Korea, the South Korean government said Monday it would provide North Korea with $22 million in general humanitarian aid.
"Medication shipment alone is not enough. Since the infection is closely related to nutrition, the Seoul government should allow civil groups to resume their private aid works to efficiently fight against the disease," said Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Mr. Kim, of the Unification Ministry, said the government doesn't currently plan to ship more flu aid.
According to the World Health Organization, H1N1 has caused at least 11,500 deaths world-wide. But H1N1 activity has been declining in much of the world, including east Asia, it said.