Aid Groups Seek to Help Flooded N. Korea

The Associated Press
Friday, August 17, 2007; 1:17 AM

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea's neighbors, the U.S. and international aid agencies sought Thursday to help the impoverished country cope with floods that have decimated large swaths of farmland, endangering citizens already struggling with food shortages.

On Friday, South Korea said it would provide aid beginning with an initial package that will total $7.5 million in relief supplies.

"Considering the seriousness of human and property damage, the government decided to provide emergency relief on grounds of humanitarianism and brotherly love," Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung told reporters.

The United States will give $100,000 to two non-governmental organizations that will supply relief goods such as blankets, shelter materials and water containers, U.S. Embassy in South Korea said in a statement.

The North Korean government granted the World Food Program permission to send four emergency teams Friday to stricken areas, providing a wider independent assessment of the damage.

A senior U.N. official in New York said 58,000 homes had been destroyed along with nearly 222,400 acres of farmland, leaving 300,000 people homeless. U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Margareta Wahlstrom, deputy emergency relief coordinator, said 83 people were dead and about 60 missing.

The U.N. said its relief officials in the region reported flood waters had wrecked more than 800 public buildings, 540 bridges, 70 stretches of railway and more than 500 electricity towers. More than 30 water reserviors and 450 agricultural structures were damaged, it said.

In the showcase capital of Pyongyang, where only the most loyal citizens are allowed to live in what is a relatively privileged life, the official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday that flooding "claimed the lives of several people," without giving details.

Up to 6.5 feet of water covered some streets, knocking out electricity and communication networks and leaving islets in the Taedong River running 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. The rain in some parts of the country from seven days of storms was almost as much as is usually recorded in 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 usually is extremely reluctant to reveal any signs of internal trouble to the outside world.

"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 Program spokesman Paul Risley said.

WFP officials planned to travel Friday to 10 hard-hit counties to assess immediate needs, hoping to start emergency food aid using supplies already in the country as part of previous hunger relief efforts, Risley said.

He added that the disaster "does appear to be quite severe based on the approach" the North Korean government is taking.

However, North Korea has a history of overstating the effects of disasters to get aid.

The North has said the rains that began last week caused floods that swept away at least 11 percent of its rice and corn fields and devastated the country's infrastructure.

The weather in affected areas cleared somewhat Thursday, with the previous heavy downpours turning to sporadic showers, said spokesman Chang Hyun-sik of the Korea Meteorological Association in South Korea.

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

"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 a planned 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 Aug. 28-30 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

U.S.-based relief organization Mercy Corps said it planned to provide some $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 did 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 program, told reporters in China.

© 2007 The Associated Press