08/18/2006, 00.00
NORTH KOREA – SOUTH KOREA
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North and South to meet amid flood damage doubts

The Red Cross believes the death toll of more than 50,000 is inflated.

Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Officials of the Red Cross from north and south are set to meet this weekend to look into possibilities of helping Pyongyang tackle the damage caused by raging floods last month. But international organizations have cast doubt on the estimates mooted by an NGO that claimed tens of thousands of people were killed.

The Seoul Unification Minister confirmed that North Korea has agreed to a "working-level" meeting tomorrow on Mount Kumgang (in the north) to assess the offer of rice and construction materials from the south.

Much of this aid has been blocked since Pyongyang showed its intent to press ahead with nuclear experiments, including missile launches.

Good Friends, a South Korean NGO that has worked in the north for years, recently published scary figures about the damage caused by the floods, the worst in the country's history: nearly 55,000 dead and more than two million homeless. The NGO said the rains had washed away large tracts of farmland and entire villages, to the extent that the country was facing the risk of famine, like in the nineties, when nearly two million people died of hunger. So far, Pyongyang has said there were just over 100 deaths. The Red Cross and the UN World Food Program said the figures provided by Good Friends were too high and perhaps arose from blackmail for humanitarian reasons.

Last week, Seoul decided to allocate 10 million US dollars to field organizations to buy rice, flour, medicines and building material. South Korea also promised to send more than 100,000 tons of rice to the north through the Red Cross.

In the past, aid distribution has proved to be a thorny issue because the government wanted to control where the relief was sent, preferring to feed its army rather than the population.

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