South Korea to Send Emergency Aid to Flood-Hit North
SEOUL - South Korea will send emergency aid worth 7.1 billion won ($7.5 million) to impoverished North Korea, where floods have left hundreds dead or missing and made more than 300,000 homeless, a minister said on Friday.
North Korea and the United Nations said more than a week of heavy rain has ruined crops and farmland in a country that does not produce enough food to feed itself, even with a good harvest.
"Considering the large-scale damage and the urgency of the people who have been displaced, we plan to provide the emergency aid as swiftly as possible," Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said. "The flood damage in the North is heartbreaking."
The initial package of instant food, water, medicine, blankets and other supplies will be sent both by ship and land, Lee said. Seoul also additional aid later, including equipment needed for recovery work, he added.
The government will discuss details of transporting the aid with South Korea's Red Cross and with the North, he said.
A Red Cross official in Seoul said it had received no official request for aid from the North but that was not surprising considering the dire situation there. The organization is working as fast as it can to get the initial package ready for shipment, he said.
North Korea's official media has said more than 11 percent of its paddy and maize fields were submerged, buried or swept away as heavy rains saturated the lower half of the country.
The resulting flooding has destroyed hundreds of bridges, thousands of buildings and washed away railroads.
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation said government reports indicated the worst affected areas were the provinces of South Pyongan, North Hwanghae and South Hwanghae -- the bread basket of the country, accounting for about half of the total rice and maize production in recent years.
"The floods are likely to have a significant negative impact on the 2007 cereal production," FAO said on Friday.
CONDITIONS SET TO WORSEN
"Although it is too early to have a comprehensive assessment of production losses, rough estimates indicate that up to 200,000-300,000 tonnes of cereals could have been lost to floods," it said, adding that North Korea's already tight food situation conditions were set to worsen as a result.
In Geneva, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said it was in talks with North Korea's government about setting up an initial feeding program for 320,000 people, many left homeless.
North Korea had a cereals deficit of 1 million tonnes, and last year food imports did not fill the gap, according to WFP.
Half of North Korea's 22 health clinics have been damaged and their stocks of essential medicines submerged, according to the World Health Organisation.
"So far there have been no reports of disease outbreaks," WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said.
But water and food borne diseases including diarrhea, cholera and dysentery, were always feared after flooding which disrupts water and sanitation systems, she added.
In a Friday dispatch, the official KCNA news agency said the North's coal industry -- a prime source of energy for the impoverished state -- was also hit hard, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of coal washed away and mines and transport lines destroyed.
A senior U.N. official said in New York on Thursday the floods have killed 83 people, but North Korea's official media said the floods left hundreds dead or missing.
An expert on the North's agricultural economy said the state would be hit hard by the losses, but does not think it will slide back into famine because of increased grain production over the past several years.
A famine in the mid-to-late-1990s is estimated to have killed as much as 10 percent of the 23 million population.
The secretive North has shown footage of the flooding on its official TV broadcast, with residents walking through waist-deep water in capital Pyongyang and troops being called out to repair the damages.
More rain is forecast for flood-hit areas in North Korea through the weekend, the South's weather agency said.
The North has made international appeals for help before when it has been hit by natural disasters.
"The North has in effect declared the state of emergency," Minister Lee said.