North Koreans affected by flooding during heavy rain in July are in dire need of nutritional and medical assistance over the coming month, the United Nations representative in Pyongyang said Monday, amid suspicion in South Korea that North is inflating estimates of the damages.
The U.N. Resident Coordinator’s Office (RCO) said its priority is to ensure that interruptions caused by the inclement weather to North Korean’s livelihoods and basic services “do not result in a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation,” in a report written in collaboration with humanitarian partners.
“Access to food, clean water and health care remain high priorities over the coming month to ensure appropriate nutritional intake and to avoid outbreak of diseases and increased cases of diarrhea,” the RCO said in the report which covered an assessment from Aug. 3-13.
“Further field visits have substantiated the need for emergency water, hygiene, sanitation and health provisions in the worst affected areas.”
It said U.N. agencies and partners had already mobilized emergency support to address immediate needs.
Heavy rainfall, which included cyclone Khanun, on July 18-19 and July 23-24, caused flash flooding and landslides, with severe damage reported across North Korea, while a heavy downpour on July 29-30 worsened the flood situation, particularly in the provinces of North and South Pyongan.
The RCO said that revised statistics provided by the North Korean government on Aug. 3 were significantly worse than those provided on July 30, accounting for a total of 169 deaths from 88 previously, as many as 400 missing, and some 212,000 left homeless—an increase of more than 149,000 people.
The North Korean government also reported that more than 65,000 hectares (160,620 acres) of arable land had been affected, with crops of mainly rice and maize either submerged or washed away. The new numbers are more than double the previous estimate.
It said flood damages were reported in 61 counties in 10 provinces across the country and that a total of 442 millimeters (17.4 inches) of rain fell in July. Some 41 water supply sources in nine counties across six provinces were damaged, affecting around 71 km (44 miles) of water pipes.
“While the physical damages in counties that have been visited by the assessment team are evident, it is not possible for the U.N. resident agencies and its partners to independently verify the totality of figures provided by the government,” the report said.
The RCO said that a total of about U.S. $3.7 million is needed to address food, health and water and sanitation activities in the aftermath of the flooding.
North Korea’s revised estimates were met with skepticism by the South Korean government, with at least one official noting that in previous years of bad flooding the North had reported much fewer casualties.
South Korea’s JoongAng Daily quoted an unnamed official as saying that in 1995—one of the worst years of flooding in North Korea—1,092 millimeters of precipitation hit the country between July 31 and Aug. 18 and Pyongyang reported 240 casualties.
Last summer, after 564 millimeters fell over nine days, the regime reported 56 casualties.
“The precipitation of the recent flooding was less than half of that seen in 1995, but the number of fatalities is triple of that in 1995,” the official said, referring to the recent report of 169 dead and including the 400 missing. “That is hard to believe.”
Pyongyang’s estimates also come amidst a controversy over photos released last week showing first lady Ri Sol Ju, wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sporting what appeared to be a Christian Dior handbag. The JoongAng Daily said that, if genuine, the bag would cost around U.S. $1,600 in Seoul.
The image lies in stark contrast with widespread shortages in the impoverished nation, where the price tag of such a luxurious accessory is more than the average North Korean worker earns in a year.
Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans died during a famine in the 1990s and the nation has faced major food shortages owing to a number of severe floods and droughts since then.
The U.N. said last autumn that some three million people would require food aid in North Korea this year, even before July’s floods.
It said in a recent report that more than one-quarter of the country’s 24 million population is “chronic poor” and that malnutrition had left one-third of its children stunted.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.