South Korea wants to have 70% of its population vaccinated by the end of September, the prime minister said, speeding up one of the lowest inoculation rates among major Asian economies as cases surge to record highs.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, at the forefront of the government’s pandemic policy, said Tuesday that South Korea would keep funneling aid to small businesses hurt by strict social distancing measures aimed at stemming a record COVID-19 wave powered by the delta variant. Kim indicated Seoul would do all it can to avoid a lockdown.
“We’re looking at various ways, such as cross-inoculation with other companies, in order to reach a 70% first-shot vaccination rate by the end of September,” Kim said in interview with Bloomberg, referring to the mix of Covid-19 vaccines from suppliers including Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc.
“If we were to be ambitious, we could reach a 70% rate for second shots by the end of October or at least mid-November,” said Kim, who took office earlier this year and is a key player in virus policy for President Moon Jae-in until his single, five-year term ends in about nine months.
Daily new virus cases started to surge in July with the emergence of the delta variant while the vaccine rollout was slowed by supply shortages and shipment delays. Inoculations have sped up in recent weeks with about 20% of the population fully vaccinated, up from 15% last week. Previously, it took six weeks to rise from 10% to 15%.
But South Korea lags Japan, which started its inoculations at about the same time and now has 37% of its population fully vaccinated. Singapore leads Asia with 73% fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
South Korea’s once lauded virus containment strategy, which operated without a lockdown, is facing a major challenge as the number of daily new coronavirus cases has touched records in recent days. Kim indicated the country could weather the current storm without turning to lockdowns.
“One of the reasons why we think Korea has succeeded in prevention is because we didn’t turn to extreme measures like lockdowns,” he said, adding the approach has prevented economic damage.
South Korea will also be looking to support its powerful semiconductor industry to help its economy as the pandemic wanes, Kim said. Aid would be extended to other areas of the economy and up to about $17,000 would be provided to small business owners, starting from Tuesday, he added.
South Korea is willing to stand by its U.S. ally even when it pursues supply chains for components that don’t involve China, Kim said. “It’s impossible for a single country to monopolize the industry, and thus we are happy to participate the U.S.-led global supply chain that excludes China, as a partner.”
Kim, 63, took part in rallies in the 1980s to bring down authoritarian rule. He was initially a conservative but later jumped to the progressive camp and is now seen as a moderate. He has not tossed his hat into the ring for the 2022 presidential race and, when asked if he might consider a 2027 run, said: “Maybe I’m too old at that time.”
Kim also extended an olive branch to Japan. Relations between the two neighbors remain strained due largely to a feud over wartime compensation.
“Korea and Japan are countries in Northeast Asia that share the values of human rights, democracy and a market economy,” he said. “We should overcome the obstacles and should talk for the future. I hope we could have that after the election in Japan.”
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