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DateLine Sunday, 19 August 2007

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North Korea pleads for aid as flooding raises fears of famine

North Korea appealed for international aid yesterday after the worst floods in 40 years killed hundreds of people and washed away the homes of hundreds of thousands more.

Aid workers gave warning of a potential repeat of the famine of the mid-1990s in which millions of people may have died after floods hit crops.


Residents wade through a flooded street in Pyongyang

Shops in Pyongyang have been flooded and private food crops have been washed away. Representatives of the few foreign embassies in the capital, including a British diplomat, will be taken to see the stricken areas today in advance of what seems certain to be a request for large-scale international aid.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) received a preliminary plea for aid yesterday after the state media reported the results of five days of heavy rain, combined with high tides.

The Korea Central News Agency said: "The torrential rain left hundreds of persons dead or missing and destroyed more than 30,000 houses for over 63,300 families or rendered them inundated. It also left tens of thousands of hectares of farmland inundated, buried under silt and washed away. The heavy rain destroyed at least 800 public buildings, over 540 bridges, 70 sections of railroads and at least 1,100 vehicles, pumps and electric motors."

In parts of the country as much as 672mm (261/2in) of rain fell in the five days. "The material damage so far is estimated to be very big," the news agency reported. "This unceasing heavy rain destroyed the nation's major railways, roads and bridges, suspended power supply and cut off the communications network."

Paul Risley, of the WFP, said: "If the figures are borne out by our assessment, then we are very concerned that this is a significant emergency crisis."

North Korea, the last of the Cold War Stalinist dictatorships, is one of the most isolated states in the world and is exceptionally vulnerable to natural disaster. Flat arable land is scarce and much of the country's food is grown on mountain slopes that have been deforested for firewood and are easily washed away in heavy rain.

The country's economy has shrunk disastrously since the break-up of its tight alliances with Russia and China and the aid and ready markets that they provided.

Agricultural techniques are primitive, with inadequate drainage and protective ditches. All this sets the scene for a repeat of the famine of the mid-1990s, when at least 1.5 million, perhaps as many as three million, people are believed to have died after floods compounded already serious food shortages between 1995 and 1997.

Defectors have told consistent stories of the horrors of that time, when corpses lay on the streets and people were forced to eat rats, dragonflies and tree bark to survive.

Many experts will assume that figures provided by the Government understate the true magnitude of any disaster. In floods last year, the authorities reported 156 dead, but Dear Friends, a South Korean Buddhist organisation with extensive contacts inside North Korea, estimated that 54,700 were dead or missing.

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