updated 8/21/2007 5:40:36 PM ET 2007-08-21T21:40:36

Reclusive North Korea is opening up to widespread international aid to help recover from devastating floods, with the main U.N. food agency announcing Tuesday it would start emergency feedings for thousands of disaster victims.

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Allowing outside aid under the World Food Program is an indication of the severity of the floods and the desperation of the regime, given that U.N. food distribution is strictly monitored to ensure those in need are being fed.

The North has previously bristled at intrusions in the tightly controlled communist country. And in recent years, it scaled back the outside assistance it allows, claiming its food crisis was over.

However, this year’s annual floods spawned by the heaviest rain in four decades appear to have devastated the country. The North says more than 11 percent of its crops were destroyed after a week of storms earlier this month, and international aid officials say some 221 people were killed and 82 remain missing. More than 89,000 people have been left homeless.

The disaster has also forced the postponement of the first summit between the two Koreas in seven years. The planned summit along with the easing of a nuclear standoff between North Korea and the international community have relieved some of the tensions in the region recently.

Disease outbreaks feared
The North requested more help Tuesday from its neighbor beyond the $7.5 million in emergency aid that South Korea has already pledged. The South’s Unification Ministry said it was considering what to offer in response to the North’s plea for construction materials and heavy equipment.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Tuesday it received a letter from the North Korean government saying it “welcomes willingness to assist,” and was asked to coordinate relief efforts. The agency plans to send experts to the country in the next few days, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva.

The World Health Organization said North Korea asked it to coordinate the supply of medicines and emergency health kits. There is urgent need for emergency health kits to cover 10,000 people for three months because of the risk for waterborne diseases such as cholera, said spokeswoman Fedela Chaib.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also launched its own international appeal Monday for $5.5 million in aid, hoping to help 3.7 million North Koreans affected by the floods.

“The situation is worsening as people are falling sick due to the poor hygiene conditions,” Jaap Timmer, delegation head of the International Red Cross in the North Korea capital Pyongyang, said in a statement.

Food programs already struggle
Many North Koreans have been stricken with diarrhea from contaminated water and there are reports of increasing acute respiratory infections, particularly among children, Timmer said.

The WFP said Tuesday it will distribute food to 215,000 affected people over the next three months.

“The flooding in the (North) is serious,” Tony Banbury, WFP’s regional director for Asia, said in a statement. “WFP has worked out satisfactory arrangements with the government so that we can provide emergency food aid to hundreds of thousands of people who need our help.”

The WFP is already at the center of international efforts to help fight hunger in the North, which is unable to provide for its own people without outside aid.

Under a previous assistance program to cope with the country’s regular annual food shortage, the WFP aimed to feed 1.9 million people but a lack of international donations meant it could only provide for 700,000 so far.

For the new emergency aid starting Tuesday, the WFP said the North Korean government “has indicated its acceptance of WFP’s conditions allowing for ongoing assessments and visits by WFP staff” of distribution in affected areas.

Some 5,700 tons of food already in the country will be given to flood victims, with an additional 9,675 tons required for the three-month plan, the agency said. The aid will cost from $5-6 million.

“We hope the international community will respond to this serious crisis and support the emergency food needs of North Korean civilians suffering from these floods,” Banbury said.

Australia said Monday it will provide $1.6 million worth of food aid as part of WFP emergency relief efforts.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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