Group: 54,700 Dead, Missing in North Korea

A South Korean aid group claimed Wednesday that massive floods in North Korea last month left about 54,700 people dead or missing and some 2.5 million homeless. The figure is by far the highest toll reported from floods that hit the impoverished communist country in mid-July.

The Seoul-based private aid agency Good Friends claimed it has "many sources" inside North Korea but didn't say where it obtained the information, which could not be independently confirmed because the North tightly controls media and information.

Good Friends' previous reports of activities inside the isolated country have been confirmed by South Korean government sources, although some of the aid group's figures have been disputed.

North Korea's official media have reported that "hundreds" were killed in the floods, without giving specific numbers.

Choson Sinbo, a newspaper published by a pro-North Korean association linked to the North, said this month that the floods killed at least 549 people and left 295 others missing.

Officials with South Korea's Red Cross and Unification Ministry, North Korea's economic cooperation office in Beijing and other agencies could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

Representatives of Good Friends refused to elaborate on their report, saying they feared their sources would face government reprisal.

The agency said the floods destroyed more than 230 bridges and inundated hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, further straining the North's ability to feed its population.

North Korea has relied on foreign food handouts since the mid-1990s, when famine caused by natural disasters and decades of mismanagement is believed to have killed up to 2 million people.

"Food prices are skyrocketing as food distribution has become nearly impossible" due to the floods, the agency said.

The agency also claimed the North, to curb possible unrest, prevented those left homeless from traveling.

A South Korean citizens' group said last week that North Korea had requested help from the South to cope with the devastation from the floods.