Aid groups consider emergency aid to flood-scarred North Korea

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The Independent Online

Outside governments and aid agencies considered North Korea's pleas for help today after waves of rain fuelled floods that reportedly swept away more than a tenth of the impoverished country's crops.

The UN food agency was meeting in Pyongyang with North Korean officials to discuss diverting its food supplies already in the country for emergency use. South Korea, a key aid donor to the North, also said it was considering what assistance to give.

North Korea's state media said today that some 46,580 homes had been flooded or destroyed, displacing more than 300,000 people. They earlier said that at least 200 people were dead or missing.

In Pyongyang, the showcase capital, the official Korean Central News Agency reported the floods "claimed the lives of several people," without giving further details.

Up to 2 metres of water covered some streets, knocking out electricity and communication networks and leaving islets in the Taedong River, which runs through the city, "buried under silt beyond recognition," KCNA reported.

The heavy rain across the country has done "huge damage" to people's livelihoods and the nation's economy, the agency said. Rain in some parts of the country from the seven days of storms reached nearly the normal total for a whole year, it said.

The series of unusually detailed official reports on the disaster were viewed as a public cry for help from the government, which has recently sought warmer ties with its neighbours, restrained its provocations and moved to scale back its nuclear weapons programme.

"This may show a new attitude on the part of the government to work more cooperatively with international agencies and to be much more direct in seeking international assistance," World Food Programme spokesman Paul Risley said.

However, North Korea has also previously exaggerated the extent of disasters to obtain aid and cover up the failings of its stagnant, centrally controlled economy.

The North has said the rains that began last week caused floods that swept away at least 11 per cent of its rice and corn fields and devastated the country's infrastructure. North Korea already struggles to feed its people and faces an annual crop deficit of 1 million tons, and the latest catastrophe could leave it another 450,000 tons short.

If confirmed, the damage would amount to about a quarter of the losses North Korea claimed it suffered in 1995 floods at the start of a famine that is estimated to have left as many as 2 million people dead.

The weather appeared to be clearing today, with the previous heavy downpours turning to light sporadic showers, said spokesman Chang Hyun-sik of the South's Korea Meteorological Association.

Officials from the WFP, the key agency coordinating the international community's efforts to prevent starvation in North Korea, were speaking today to the government about how they could aid recovery efforts following a request from Pyongyang, Risley said.

The WFP already has food supplies in place in some of the damaged areas for its regular feeding programmes that focus on children and nursing mothers, Risley said.

South Korea is considering offering emergency assistance including blankets, clothing, flour and medicine, the Unification Ministry said today.

"From a humanitarian standpoint, the government plans to actively send relief aid in response to the current flood disaster," Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung told a National Assembly hearing on an upcoming summit.

The leaders of the two Koreas are to meet later this month in Pyongyang for the second such summit since the peninsula was divided after World War II, with aid already expected to be a main topic of discussion.

The floods were not likely to have an impact on the summit itself, presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said Thursday. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is to travel by road for his August 28-30 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

US-based relief organisation Mercy Corps said it plans to provide some US$500,000 in food, medicine, clothes and tools to North Korea after discussing the situation with its counterparts there.

Japan also said it would consider giving aid if asked by North Korea, but it does not yet have specific plans.

"We are looking at the situation regarding the flood in North Korea with sympathy," Kenichiro Sasae, Japan's envoy to talks on North Korea's nuclear programme, told reporters in China on the sidelines of ongoing negotiations.

An expert on famine in North Korea urged caution over the official damage estimates because of past overstatements from Pyongyang, stressing nonetheless the disaster was still a tragic situation for North Koreans.

"Releasing such a precise figure so early on simply serves to raise flags and raises concerns about what's really going on," said Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics.