Severe floods have destroyed more than a tenth of North Korea's farmland at the height of the growing season, official media said Wednesday in reports that appeared to be a cry for outside help from the normally secretive regime.
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Severe floods have destroyed more than a tenth of North Korea's farmland at the height of the growing season, official media said Wednesday in reports that appeared to be a cry for outside help from the normally secretive regime.
Aid officials fear the loss of crop land could seriously hinder the North's ability to feed its people, causing widespread famine.
The country has suffered from food shortages since the mid-1990s due to natural disasters, outdated farming methods and the loss of support from Moscow after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The North is especially susceptible to bad weather because of a vicious circle in which people strip hillsides of natural vegetation to create more arable land - increasing the risk of floods.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency reported that rains in some areas of the Taedong River were the "largest ever" measured by the country's weather agency.
The flooding submerged, buried or washed away more than 11 percent of the country's rice and corn fields, KCNA reported, citing Agriculture Ministry official Ri Jae Hyon.
The U.N. food agency estimated the damage claimed by the North so far was about a quarter of the crop losses the country said it suffered in 1995 floods. That previous disaster, along with mismanagement of the economy and the loss of Pyongyang's Soviet benefactor, led to famine that is believed to have killed as many as 2 million North Koreans.
Some 113,000 acres of fields in South Phyongan and South Hwanghae provinces were decimated in the most recent flooding, according to KCNA, noting those areas are the "main granaries of the country."
"It is hard to expect a high-grain output owing to the uninterrupted rainstorms at the most important time for the growth of crops in the country," the news agency said.
State media earlier said the summer storms left "hundreds" dead or missing, and other aid officials have said the death toll was at least 200.
"What is badly needed first is rice, cement, daily necessities and medicines," Tong Chang Son, vice chairman of a government committee in South Phyongan province, told APTN. "I would be grateful if there is international aid, for there is great damage on a nationwide scale."
To cope with the damage, the North has mobilized the military to help with recovery efforts, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed government officials.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also said he had instructed U.N. agencies in Pyongyang and Bangkok, including the World Food Program and UNICEF, to assess the damage from the flooding and the needs of victims in the countryside.
The WFP said Wednesday that North Korean officials reported 200,000 to 300,000 people were homeless, with the total number probably much larger.
WFP spokesman Paul Risley said from Bangkok that the effects were expected to be especially acute because the weather hit during the pollination period for the crops.
"There is concern that this could indicate that these floods could significantly reduce the size of this year's harvest," he said.
North Korean citizens worked to rebuild roads, clear debris and shore up sandbags along rivers Wednesday in flood-affected areas outside Pyongyang, APTN television reported. Video footage showed electricity poles tilted sideways and a farmhouse that appeared to have been swept down a hillside.
Tensions over the North's nuclear weapons program have constrained aid efforts because other countries have been reluctant to donate. The situation has recently improved and North Korea shut off its sole operating nuclear reactor last month.
Risley said the WFP had planned to double by September the number of those it feeds to 1.9 million people - mostly children and nursing mothers - after a recent donation of $20 million worth of food from South Korea. But because of the floods, that aid is expected to be diverted and the WFP will likely launch a new international appeal for assistance, Risley said.
The WFP is able to produce critical food items such as biscuits from factories that it runs inside North Korea. However, it still needs outside commodities such as wheat and rice to make them that are shipped via roads and rail - which the North has said were hard-hit by the floods.
"We're very concerned by the reports of damages to infrastructure, since that may affect our ability to quickly bring in emergency food rations," Risley said.