Eintime Conversion for education and research 10-20-2007 @ 07:24:19
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N. Korea: Floods destroyed tenth of farmland

[Foodchain destruction: RSB]

SEOUL (AP) — North Korea detailed a picture of massive devastation Wednesday from some of the country's heaviest rains that official media said wiped out more than a 10th of the impoverished country's farmland during peak planting season.

If confirmed, the destruction so far to the country's agriculture would amount to about a quarter of the damage the North claimed it suffered in 1995. That disaster exacerbated a famine spawned by mismanagement of the economy and the loss of Pyongyang's Soviet benefactor after the fall of communism that eventually left as many as 2 million dead.

In this month's floods, as many as 300,000 people have been left homeless since the storms began, the North told the U.N.'s food agency. North Korea has said "hundreds" were killed or missing, but an aid agency working in the country has said it was told the casualties numbered at least 200.

VIDEO: Hundreds missing in North Korean floods

The vivid portrait of damage painted in a series of reports from the North's state-run media appeared to be a cry for help from a desperate regime that maintains strict secrecy of its internal affairs and where few outsiders are allowed.

However, the North has also previously exaggerated the extent of disasters to obtain aid and cover up its own ineptitude in providing for its people due to its decrepit centrally controlled economy.

The official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday that downpours along some areas of the Taedong River were the "largest ever in the history" of measurements taken by the country's weather agency.

"It is hard to expect a high-grain output owing to the uninterrupted rainstorms at the most important time for the growth of crops," KCNA said.

The rains have submerged, buried or washed away more than 11% of rice and corn fields in the country, KCNA reported citing Agriculture Ministry official Ri Jae Hyon, who said the crop damage from floods was "heavier than the previous" disasters in the North.

The rain was worse than downpours that battered the country 40 years ago, KCNA said, noting the total rain from Aug. 7 through Saturday averaged 20.6 inches, 2.1 inches more than in the previous disaster in that same month in 1967.

Citizens worked to rebuild roads, clear debris and shore up sandbags along rivers Wednesday in flood-affected areas outside Pyongyang, APTN television reported from North Korea. Video footage showed a farmhouse that appeared to have been swept down a hillside by the rain.

A local official appealed for help and said the storms had caused "great damage."

"What is badly needed first is rice, cement, daily necessities and medicine," Tong Chang Son, vice chairman of a government committee in South Phyongan province, told APTN. "I would be grateful if there is international aid, for there is great damage on a nationwide scale."

The North is especially vulnerable to the annual heavy summer rains that soak the Korean peninsula because of a vicious cycle where people strip hillsides of natural vegetation to create more arable land to grow food — increasing the risk of floods.

The U.N. World Food Program estimated that the amount of damage the North Koreans claimed to its fields would result in losses of about 450,000 tons of crops — nearly half of the 1 million ton annual shortage the country already faces.

The amount is less than the total 2 million tons the North said were lost in 1995 floods at the start of its famine, said WFP spokesman Paul Risley.

"Nonetheless, this would be an extremely serious reduction in the amount of the harvest," he said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said Washington was considering how it could help the North Koreans.

"It's a serious humanitarian issue, and we would like to be part of the effort to assist, so we need to evaluate the situation and see what we can do to help," he told reporters in China before the start of talks on the North's nuclear program.

An expert on famine in North Korea urged caution over the official damage estimates due to past overstatements from Pyongyang.

"There is a history of the North Koreans exaggerating the extent of natural disasters in order to obtain aid," said Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics.

"Releasing such a precise figure so early on simply serves to raise flags and raises concerns about what's really going on," he said, stressing nonetheless that the disaster was still a tragic situation for North Koreans.

In 1995, the North said floods had displaced of 5.4 million people, but international aid agencies instead found 500,000 homeless — a large crisis, but still only a tenth of what Pyongyang had claimed, Noland said.

Noland also noted that the disaster reports come ahead of this month's summit between leaders of the two Koreas.

The liberal Seoul government has been criticized by conservatives at home and abroad for its engagement policies that have given unconditional aid to Pyongyang even as it was locked in an international standoff over its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Aid was already expected to be a key topic of discussion, and Noland said the latest disaster gives Seoul justification to provide greatly expanded assistance to its neighbor.

(Original Len: 5785 Condensed Len: 5863)

10-20-2007 @ 07:24:19