Massive flooding in North Korea has killed at least 138 people and washed out roads, making it impossible for relief workers to reach thousands of victims. In addition to physical barriers to delivering aid, the crisis highlights the difficulties agencies face in a country subject to authoritarian rule, as well as international sanctions.
While the full extent of flood damage won’t be known until relief workers are able to reach areas in the northeastern part of the country, the UN’s resident coordinator Tapan Mishra said in a statement today that about 140,000 people need assistance.
State media said the floods are the worst natural disaster to hit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 70 years.
“The storm and flooding left houses for tens of thousands of families and public buildings collapsed and railways, roads, electric power system[s], industrial establishment[s] and farm lands destroyed or submerged,” the state’s Korea Central News Agency said on Sunday.
The magnitude of the disaster prompted the government to ask for help from international agencies and, in a relatively rare move, it invited aid officials to join an assessment mission last week to flood-hit areas.
The team was unable to reach two counties – Musan and Yonsa – because flooding had washed away 50 kilometres of road, according to Murat Sahin, who is deputy representative to the DPRK for UNICEF.
“There is now a large team of local people working to repair these roads and bridges, in order to provide access to these heavily hit counties,” he said in an email from Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. “We expect the roads to be open by this weekend.”
The Red Cross said 1,000 volunteers helped government authorities carry out search and rescue efforts and provided emergency medical care in the immediate aftermath of the floods, which struck North Hamgyong Province on 9 September. The UN’s World Food Programme said it has so far distributed emergency rations to 140,000 people.
In order to meet the urgent need for rations, WFP dipped into stocks that were meant to go to young children and pregnant or nursing mothers as part of a programme that provides food to 650,000 people throughout the country. The WFP considers about 70 percent of North Korea’s 25 million people to be “food insecure”, while a 2013 nutrition survey by UN agencies found that 28 percent of the population is chronically malnourished.
Now, WFP needs to replace those rations, but that could be harder than you’d expect.
In response to its fourth nuclear test, the UN tightened sanctions on North Korea in March. Humanitarian aid is exempt from the sanctions regime, but banks are now even more reluctant than before to make transfers. As a result, the UN lost its banking channel and aid agencies are still trying to figure out a way to get cash into the country to replace their rapidly dwindling supplies.