North Koreans living along the Tumen River border with China on Tuesday described a hellish ordeal as the river rose swiftly, leaving many people scrambling for safety in a flood that has claimed at least 200 lives and devastated a wide swath of country’s poorest region.
“The floods came through with such force that the Tumen River, which borders China, swelled rapidly,” Dong Nam Kim, a North Korean defector and representative of the Free North Korea Global Network, told RFA’s Korean Service as he relayed descriptions of the disaster from inside the country.
“The water hit and destroyed villages in the Gangan Dong area in Hoeryong City,” he said. “Around 200 residents have been killed or are missing because of the rising flood water.”
The floods ripped through the area Aug. 30 as Typhoon Lionrock lashed Northeast Asia from from August 29 to September 2.
North Korean authorities at first estimated that 44,000 people had been displaced between Onsong County, in the north, and Musan County, a major mining center 100 miles downriver.
The North Korean government has confirmed that 133 people have been killed and 395 are missing as a result of the floods, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said Sunday.
But Kim said the number of dead and missing were understated.
“About 400-500 households used to live in Gangan Dong, but that area was hit by the heaviest downpour, and now these households have clearly lost everything,” he said. “Nothing can be recovered. I asked about the expected casualties, and the sources said about 200 people have been killed or are missing.”
Survivors are being housed in tents and in the Hoeryong Stadium, Kim said.
The floods may have hit the provinces in the north harder after North Korean authorities opened up the floodgates in the hydroelectric facilities upstream.
“The reason for the sudden rise in the water is that several hydroelectric power generation stations located in the upper region of the Tumen River opened their floodgates,” a North Korean defector who recently talked with his family in Musan County told RFA.
It’s unclear why the North Korean government decided to open up the floodgates, but the North Korean defector said that with the rain falling at nearly four inches per hour caused the authorities to fear that the dams would burst, causing even more damage.
“A large amount of water flowed into the Tumen River, and residents living downstream in areas such as Musan County, Hoeryong City and Onsung County were beset by severe floods,” said the defector, who spoke on condition of unanimity.
While authorities may have saved the dams and prevented even wider destruction, they couldn’t keep the lights on, as the flood knocked out transmission lines, power stations, roads and communications facilities.
The Ryungsoo Substation that feeds power to Hoeryong City stopped working due to the flood, cutting electricity and water supplies as well as communications, Kim said.
Cell Phone Jamming
While the flood knocked out communications, sources in North Korea and Chinese provinces across the Tumen River tell RFA that the North Korean authorities have also stepped up cell phone jamming.
“Because they are sending continuous cell phone jamming signals, it is nearly impossible to use a cell phone,” said a Chinese source. “It has been a while since they sent electronic jamming signals, but immediately after the flood they sent out strong jamming signals.”
A source in North Korea’s North Hamgyung Province told RFA that people had to climb the mountains to make a call.
“Because of the strong jamming signals people only can make a call from a high mountain,” the source said. “North Korea seems to want to prevent the spread of information on the flood victims’ situation to the outside world, so that they send cell phone jamming signals to the flooded areas.”
RFA has previously reported that people living on the Chinese side of the border had their mobile phone service blocked by aggressive North Korean jamming.
An international pariah’s humanitarian appeal
At least 140,000 people are in urgent need of assistance, the OCHA said in a statement. It estimated 100,000 people have been displaced and water supplies to about 600,000 people have been cut.
Of the more than 35,500 houses that were damaged, nearly two-thirds were destroyed. A further 8,700 buildings, including schools and public buildings, were damaged, and 16,000 hectares (39,540 acres) of arable land inundated, the OCHA said.
The government of North Korea, which called the deadly natural disaster the “the strongest storm and heaviest downpour” the country has experienced in decades, issued an unusual appeal for international help.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on Sunday reported that the governing Worker’s Party called on its members and service personnel to respond to the flooding.
KCNA reported that the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea has sent out a public appeal and announced that: “We made critical decisions and redirected a nationwide 200-day mass mobilization campaign toward helping flood victims.”
An inopportune time
North Korea’s appeal for help could not have come at a worse time, coming after the country conducted its second nuclear test in eight months on Friday, an act of defiance that was widely condemned and is expected to draw more economic sanctions from the international community.
The test raises concerns that Pyongyang has moved a step closer to its goal of a nuclear-armed missile that could one day strike the U.S. mainland.
State TV said the atomic detonation — the fifth carried out by Kim Jong Un's isolated regime — "put on a higher level [the North's] technology of mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets."
Seoul estimated the test produced the North's biggest-ever estimated explosive yield.
Friday’s test detonation was “smaller than both Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but it would still rip the heart out of a city,” IHS Jane’s analyst Karl Dewey explained. “If detonated in the middle of Lower Manhattan in New York, for example, it would destroy pretty much everything up to the West Village and down to about the New York Stock Exchange.”
Reported by Young Jung and Sunghui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Brooks Boliek