SEOUL, South Korea – Severe floods caused by days of heavy rains in North Korea have left at least 200 people dead or missing and will hamper the country's ability to feed itself for at least a year, an international aid group operating in the country said Tuesday.
North Korean officials told the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that 200 people were dead or missing across the country, acting delegation head Terje Lysholm told The Associated Press from Pyongyang. He declined to speculate if casualties could rise as officials fully assess the situation.
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North Korean state media reported earlier Tuesday that "hundreds" were dead or missing since the rains began last week.
"The material damage so far is estimated to be very big," the official Korean Central News Agency said. "This unceasing heavy rain destroyed the nation's major railways, roads and bridges, suspended power supply and cut off the communications network."
Lysholm said a total of 63,300 families had been affected by the weather, which completely destroyed 30,000 homes.
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Of those, 20,000 houses were in worst-hit Kangwon province, where blocked roads were preventing aid workers from assessing the damage, he said.
Some 247,100 acres of land have also been washed away, Lysholm said, affecting the impoverished nation's already limited ability to feed its people.
"That really definitely has an impact on the food situation for this year and at least one or two years," he said.
Lysholm said the floods were the worst in a decade in North Korea. In the mid-1990s, natural disasters coupled with outdated farming methods and the loss of the country's Soviet benefactor sparked a famine that is estimated to have killed as many as 2 million people.
As much as 23.6 inches of rain have soaked parts of the country, Lysholm said. "That's a huge amount of water," he said.
Last year, floods also hit the North over the summer and the exact number of dead was never revealed by the government. The South Korean intelligence agency estimated later that from 800-900 people were killed or missing.
North Korea's official media also painted a dire picture of the damage caused by the latest storms, which continue to soak the peninsula.
"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," KCNA said.
The International Red Cross was able to visit 14 counties where it counted 2,500 homeless families and was distributing kits of necessities such as blankets, kitchen sets and water purification tablets, Lysholm said. The national and international Red Cross also established a 24-hour crisis center for updates on the situation, he said.
In the North Korean capital on Tuesday, rivers were overflowing their banks and residents waded through knee-deep water, APTN television reported from Pyongyang in footage that showed flooded buildings across the city.
Three U.N agencies had been invited by the North Korean government to participate in a joint assessment mission of flood-affected regions in the countryside as part of a preliminary request for U.N. assistance, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York.
World Food Program, the World Health Organization and UNICEF toured one of four provinces Tuesday, and would continue assessing the situation on Wednesday and Thursday, she said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also met with North Korea's U.N. ambassador, Pak Gil Yon, to express his sympathies to the North Korean government and people for the flooding, Montas said.
"He assured the United Nations would do its utmost in coordination with the international community to help mitigate the consequences of this natural disaster," she said.
South Korea, meanwhile, is reviewing whether to provide emergency aid to the North to help it recover from the flood damage, a Unification Ministry official said, asking not to be named in accordance with policy.
The two Koreas are set to meet this month for their second-ever summit since they were divided after World War II, where the South is expected to offer a variety of assistance to its communist neighbor to prod reforms.
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