U.N. team to tour flood-hit North Korea, no word from leader Kim

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 30, 2012 9:15 PM
U.N. team to tour flood-hit North Korea, no word from leader Kim

By Choonsik Yoo and Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) - A United Nations team will visit North Korea from Tuesday to assess damage from recent floods with a view to developing an aid plan, a U.N. official said, although the North's new leadership is yet to make any detailed response to the disaster.

The team will include some U.N. workers already in North Korea, Christopher de Bono, chief of communications for East Asia and the Pacific for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), told Reuters on Monday.

The trip follows a meeting between U.N. and North Korean officials on Monday, at which Pyongyang presented its assessment of the damage, he said without elaborating on the meeting.

"We have agreed to send an inter-agency rapid assessment team to the two most affected counties tomorrow (July 31)," de Bono said in an emailed statement.

North Korea remains one of the most isolated states in the world. That has not changed since new leader Kim Jong-un took power seven months ago, although floods have in the past provided opportunities for contact with the outside world.

"A U.N. response will be devised after the inter-agency mission confirms the damages and gauges the immediate requirements of the affected population," de Bono said.

Initial reports indicated the damage to farming areas and its effect on people was devastating.

North Korea's official media has reported that floods caused by torrential rainfalls from July 25 killed 88 people, left tens of thousands homeless and damaged farmlands.

Apart from a brief statement carried by the official KCNA news agency three days ago, there has been no other word suggesting how the North's new leadership will help the thousands struggling to survive.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said on Monday its neighbor had not requested any aid from international agencies.

"STORMY APPLAUSE"

On Monday, KCNA said in a lengthy article that Kim, believed to be in his 20s, and his new wife had enjoyed a musical performance commemorating the anniversary of the 1953 truce accord that suspended the war with South Korea.

"When the female vocal sextet 'Our Beloved Leader' resounded with the image of tender-hearted Marshal Kim Jong-un taking care of the big family of the country and giving it happiness projected against the backdrop, the audience stood to give stormy applause," it said.

Kim inherited the leadership of one of the world's poorest states when his father, Kim Jong-il, died in December. Since then he has surprised many by showing a more human side to the dour leadership of his father.

There has also been talk from defectors and other observers of the reclusive state that Kim plans to reform the North's broken economy.

But his response to the latest floods in a country already suffering widespread hunger remains unknown.

The floods come after a period of drought and are certain to lift food prices, already rising sharply. According to defectors contacted by Reuters in neighboring South Korea, rice prices have already risen beyond the reach of ordinary households.

"A heavy downpour on the 29th July, coupled with heavy thunderstorms, have worsened the flood situation for DPRK (North Korea)," the United Nations North Korea office reported on its website (http://kp.one.un.org/theme-groups/contingency-planning-and-emergency-response/current-emergencies/).

North Korea has become increasingly prone to flooding because of widespread deforestation.

Defectors said the rice price increase has been aggravated due to hoarding by middlemen hoping to cash in on economic reforms which Kim's government is reported to be planning.

North Korea, which suffered a period of famine in the 1990s, has for years relied on foreign aid to make up for the shortfall in food production.

Even before the latest flooding, a dysfunctional food distribution system, rapid inflation and international sanctions over Pyongyang's weapons programs have created what is thought to be widespread hunger.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Paul Tait)