Torrential rains in North Korea have forced thousands of families from their homes and left at least 200 people dead or missing, an aid official said Tuesday, adding that the worst floods there in a decade will worsen Pyongyang’s already precarious ability to feed its people.
To cope with damage from the storms that began last week, the North has asked the United Nations to assess the situation in affected regions as part of a preliminary request for assistance — an indication of the dire situation in the impoverished nation.
North Korea struggles to provide for its people, and as many as 2 million people have died from famine that began in the mid-1990s. The government blamed the famine on natural disasters, but it was also caused by outdated farming methods and the loss of the country’s Soviet benefactor.
Because of the food shortages, regular North Koreans seek to use all possible arable land in the mountainous country to grow crops — denuding vast hillsides of natural vegetation and therefore increasing the risk of landslides when heavy rains strike.
The latest floods began last week. North Korean state media reported that “hundreds” were dead or missing, without giving further detail on casualties.
“The material damage so far is estimated to be very big,” the official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday. “This unceasing heavy rain destroyed the nation’s major railways, roads and bridges, suspended power supply and cut off the communications network.”
North Korean officials told the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that 200 people were dead or missing across the country, acting delegation head Terje Lysholm told The Associated Press from Pyongyang. He declined to speculate if casualties could rise as officials fully assess the situation.
30,000 homes destroyed
Lysholm said a total of 63,300 families had been affected by the weather, which destroyed 30,000 homes. Of those, 20,000 houses were in worst-hit Kangwon province, where blocked roads were preventing aid workers from assessing the damage.
Some 250,000 acres of farmland has also been washed away, Lysholm said.
“That really definitely has an impact on the food situation for this year and at least one or two years,” he said. He said the floods were the worst seen in the North in at least a decade.
More than 20 inches of rain have soaked parts of the country, Lysholm said. “That’s a huge amount of water,” he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, met with North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Pak Gil Yon in New York to dicuss the disaster and offer U.N. assistance.
“I expressed my deep sympathy for the loss of many human lives (and) property damage, which is unprecedented in the DPRK,” Ban told reporters, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“And I assured him that the United Nations will be prepared to render whatever possible humanitarian assistance and help to the DPRK government and people,” he said, adding that Pak was “grateful” for the offer.
Ban said he instructed U.N. agencies in Pyongyang and Bangkok, including the World Food Program and UNICEF, to assess the damage from the flooding and the needs of victims in the countryside.
U.S. mulls aid
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would also examine what it might be able to do through the United Nations to help the North Korean people.
“If there’s a humanitarian need, we’ll take a look to see if we could help out in some way,” he said.
In the North Korean capital on Tuesday, rivers were overflowing their banks and residents waded through knee-deep water, APTN television reported from Pyongyang in footage that showed flooded buildings across the city.
North Korea’s official media also gave a bleak picture of the damage caused by the latest storms, which continue to soak the peninsula.
“The heavy rain destroyed at least 800 public buildings, over 540 bridges, 70 sections of railroads and at least 1,100 vehicles, pumps and electric motors,” KCNA said.
Red Cross toured areas
The international Red Cross was able to visit 14 counties where it counted 2,500 homeless families and was distributing kits of necessities such as blankets, kitchen sets and water purification tablets, Lysholm said.
The national and international Red Cross also established a 24-hour crisis center for updates on the situation, he said.
Last summer, heavy floods also struck the North but the exact number of dead was never revealed by the government.
South Korea’s main intelligence agency later estimated that 800-900 people were killed or missing.
After the latest floods, South Korea was reviewing whether to provide emergency aid to the North to help it recover from the flood damage, a Unification Ministry official said, asking not to be named in accordance with policy.
South Korea is a major aid donor to the North, since the two countries embarked on a policy of reconciliation after their leaders met for the first time ever in 2000.
The second summit between North and South is scheduled for later this month, where Seoul is expected to offer a variety of assistance to its communist neighbor to prod reforms.