08/17/2006, 00.00
NORTH KOREA – SOUTH KOREA
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North Korea: Floods claim 54,700 victims and leave 2.5 million homeless

A humanitarian aid NGO said this was the worst disaster ever to hit the country. The harvest is at stake in a country already hard pressed to feed its people.

Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The July floods, the worst in the country's history, have claimed at least 54,700 victims – dead or missing – in North Korea and left 2.5 million people homeless. The harvest is threatened and without foreign aid, severe famine looms. This was the picture painted yesterday by Good Friends, a South Korean humanitarian NGO that has worked in the north for some time now.

These estimates are much higher than any preceding figures and are based on definitive data obtained at the end of July. North Korean media reported that "hundreds" of people have been killed or went missing.

The 10 July typhoon, which was followed by three days of violent monsoon rains, washed away large tracts of farmland and entire villages, creating an emergency in a country that fails to feed its people even in normal times. The typhoon also swept away 231 bridges. The southwestern province of Hwanghaedo, one of the main grain-producing areas of the nation, was among those hardest hit. According to the NGO estimates, at least 300,000 homes were destroyed or damaged.

Good Friends said: "The North Korean authorities keep information about the real damage under strict control for fear that it may lead to social unrest." However, added the NGO, in North Korea "word is running around that there will be 'nothing to harvest for this year'".

In the mid-nineties, the country was gripped by severe famine that killed around two million people, said the NGO, adding that the country was still incapable of feeding its 23 million residents 10 years later, and was forced to depend on foreign food aid.  

When it carried out missile weapon tests for its nuclear programme on 5 July, Pyongyang isolated itself still further at a time when it needed international aid more than ever. After the tests, South Korea, the source of most of North Korea's aid, suspended delivery of 500,000 tonnes of rice. It resumed aid only last week when it announced funding worth 10 million US dollars for private organizations addressing the damage caused by the floods. Yesterday the South Korean Reunification Minister announced a meeting between officials of the Red Cross of the two Koreas to discuss aid. (PB)

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