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North Korea Floods: Work Gangs Race Against Time as Winter Looms

After a four-hour drive on dirt roads into the most inaccessible corner of this secretive country, NBC News witnessed scenes of frantic activity.

YONSA, North Korea — It has suffered the worst natural disaster in its history but North Korea blowing its trumpet of revolutionary socialism and trying to turn catastrophe into triumph.

Everywhere you look across dozens of miles of the country's remote northeast, red flags flutter in the stiff breeze and work gangs toil to fix broken river banks, digging away mud that was piled deep by raging waters in recent floods.

In the small town of Yonsa, more than 4,000 soldiers are hauling rocks, making bricks and rebuilding bridges.

After a four-hour drive on dirt roads into the most inaccessible corner of this secretive country, NBC News witnessed scenes of frantic activity.

Image: Map showing Yonsa, North Korea
A map showing the location of Yonsa, North Korea.Google Maps

Soldiers and citizens have been given three weeks by their leader Kim Jong Un to rebuild the town and house the 27,000 people who lost their dwellings, before the winter sets in at the end of the month.

It's no easy task.

Where 700 homes once stood, only five remain. To the rousing accompaniment of a military band, they are racing against time to build three-story apartment blocks to house the families.

Helping them are two children — a 13-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy — whose parents died in floods. They said their "Dear Leader" would be their father now and, while they had lost their parents, they hadn't lost hope in a better future.

Kim Yong Sil, a mother in her late 30s, described how flood waters had hit their riverside home at two in the morning and swept away her husband who, she claimed, was trying to rescue "portraits of their great leaders” from the collapsing house.

If her story sounded scripted, her tears were not.

Battling to rebuild the homes are work gangs filling sacks with rocks — 20 bags every hour, from dawn to dusk. It's back-breaking labor.

Related: What It's Like to Fly in North Korea

It is a mark of how serious this disaster is that Kim Jong Un has appealed to the world for help and for money to rebuild. South Korea has already refused.

North Korea isn't asking everyone. "I'm not going to reach out my hand to the United States," said one official, Ri Song Chol. “Not after 70 years of their aggression."

Image: Kim Jong Un on May 6
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on May 6.KCNA via AFP - Getty Images

Many people are putting their trust in their all-powerful commander-in-chief.

"Our Dear Leader Kim Jong Un promised us he would provide new house for us before winter," said homeless mother Taw Kyung Wha. "So we believe him."

For Kim, who rules some of the poorest people on earth, it is risky.

He can't afford to lose popular support as his father did in the early 1990s when a flood was followed by a terrible famine that left hundreds of thousands dead.