North Korea agreed Thursday to accept medicine from South Korea to fight an outbreak of swine flu, a Cabinet minister said, in a development that could improve relations between the nations after a deadly maritime clash.
"Today, the North expressed its intention to receive" the medical aid, South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek told reporters.
North Korean state media reported Wednesday that there were nine confirmed swine flu cases in the country.
Hyun separately told lawmakers that Seoul plans to send enough doses of the antiviral Tamiflu for 500,000 North Koreans, according to his spokesman Chun Hae-sung.
Chun said the two sides could discuss the timing of the delivery in a meeting at the border village of Panmunjom as early as Friday.
The move came two days after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak offered unconditional aid to North Korea to help contain the virus _ the government's first offer of humanitarian aid since Lee took office in early 2008 with a hard-line policy toward the North.
The aid offer indicates a desire by the Koreas for better relations despite a naval clash near their disputed western sea border last month. The fighting killed one North Korean sailor and wounded three others, according to South Korean military officials.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday that a quarantine system was in place to fight swine flu.
It did not mention any virus-related deaths or say how the flu had spread to the isolated country, which maintains strict control over its citizens' movements and is selective about who can enter its borders.
The World Health Organization, which has an office in Pyongyang, said no deaths due to swine flu had been recorded in North Korea. Nine children aged 11 to 14 were being treated with Tamiflu, it said in a statement Wednesday.
Officials were carrying out surveillance to contain the virus' spread and had enough stock of Tamiflu in affected areas, WHO said, adding that there was no need to panic. Tamiflu is made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche Holding AG.
However, a Seoul-based civic group that first reported the outbreak earlier in the week said Wednesday that swine flu has killed about 50 people in North Korea since early November. It would not provide the source of its information.
Swine flu has killed more than 8,700 people worldwide since the first outbreaks were reported in Mexico in April, according to WHO.
Flooding and economic mismanagement in the 1990s destroyed North Korea's farming sector, and it now relies on outside handouts to feed its people. Nuclear defiance has further tightened U.N. sanctions on the government.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.