updated 8/18/2006 10:59:41 AM ET 2006-08-18T14:59:41

The U.N. food agency said Friday it will deliver emergency aid to North Koreans affected by last month’s heavy flooding in the impoverished communist nation, which has reversed its refusal to accept international help.

State media in the North has said the disaster killed “hundreds” but a South Korean aid group has claimed the casualty toll is nearly 58,000 dead and missing.

Pyongyang told the World Food Program last week it was willing to accept aid, Beijing-based program spokesman Gerald Bourke told The Associated Press.

“We kept the offer there and it has now been accepted,” Bourke said. “We are open to other requests.”

The program is sending 150 tons of wheat flour and vegetable oil to feed 13,000 people for a month in North Korea’s Songchon County, about 50 miles northeast of the capital.

North Korea also told South Korea this week that it would accept emergency aid, and the countries’ Red Cross societies were to meet Saturday to discuss details.

The South’s top official on North Korea, Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok, said North Korea is estimated to have lost at least 100,000 tons of rice in the floods, and the South will determine how much rice to ship to the North based on that figure.

Disputed death toll
The Seoul-based private aid agency Good Friends raised its estimated death toll Thursday to 57,700, up 3,000 from its earlier figures. Good Friends said it has “many sources” inside North Korea but did not say where it obtained the figures, which could not be independently confirmed because the North tightly controls all media and information.

The North has relied on outside aid to help feed its citizens since natural disasters and mismanagement in the 1990s led to famine believed to have killed as many as 2 million people.

Last year, the North called for a halt to international aid, claiming it did not want to create a culture of dependency. The country still accepted Chinese and South Korean assistance, which comes with much less stringent monitoring than that required by the World Food Program to ensure the needy are receiving the aid.

South Korea suspended regular aid to the North in July after the country test-launched a series of missiles over international objections. Seoul decided to offer emergency aid after the floods, but said its suspension otherwise was still in place.

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