By Choonsik Yoo and Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - A United Nations team will visit North Korea from Tuesday to assess damage caused by recent floods, with a view to developing an aid plan, a U.N. official told Reuters on Monday.
The team is the highest-profile delegation allowed into the secretive state since its new leader took power seven months ago.
The planned trip follows a meeting between U.N. and North Korean officials on Monday, at which Pyongyang presented its assessment of the damage, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) official 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)," Christopher de Bono, chief of communications for East Asia and the Pacific for the UNICEF said in an emailed statement.
North Korea remains one of the most isolated states in the world. That has not changed since Kim Jong-un took office, though 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.
North Korea's official media has reported that floods caused by torrential rainfalls between July 18 and 25 killed 88 people, left tens of thousands homeless and damaged agricultural areas.
On top of that, the country's KCNA news agency said an additional 400 mm (16 inches) of rain had fallen in the 24 hours to Monday morning.
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/.
"The flooding will result in more hikes in rice prices until the autumn harvest and which were already seen because of the massive drought," Kwon Tae-jin, a senior researcher at Korea Rural Economic Institute, told Reuters.
"It is simply making things worse," he said.
HOARDING BY MIDDLEMEN
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 the government of new leader Kim Jong-un 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.
South Korea's Unification Ministry said its neighbor had not requested any aid from international agencies.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Michael Roddy)