SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea has accepted aid from South Korea to help recover from floods that an aid group claims left tens of thousands dead and more than 2 million homeless, a South Korean official said Thursday.
Officials with the North's Red Cross sent a message to their South Korean counterparts accepting an assistance offer, Unification Ministry spokesman Yang Chang-seok said. The two sides plan to discuss the aid Saturday.
It was an apparent turnabout for the impoverished communist country, which spurned aid from South Korea's Red Cross after the floods hit in mid-July, saying it would handle the disaster on its own.
The South Korean government plans to send more than $72 million in joint donations with civic groups, several of which already have shipped relief supplies to the North and plan to send more, officials said.
Seoul said its aid does not represent a change in its decision to halt regular humanitarian assistance to the North after Pyongyang test-fired seven missiles last month against international objections.
Meanwhile, the Seoul-based private aid agency Good Friends raised its death toll estimate Thursday to 57,700, up 3,000 from its earlier figures.
Good Friends said it has "many sources" inside North Korea but did not say where it obtained the figures, which could not be independently confirmed because the North tightly controls all media and information.
North Korea's official media has reported that "hundreds" were killed, 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.
Good Friends refused to elaborate on the report, saying their sources could face government reprisals. The agency's 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 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.
Good Friends 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.
Good Friends said it would take up to three years for the North to recover from the disaster without international aid, and starvation similar to that during the 1990s might strike the North again within that time.
"Food prices are skyrocketing as food distribution has become nearly impossible" due to the floods, the group said.