Nearly a month of heavy rains and floods have raised concerns that North Korea may slip back toward famine this year. Aid groups say even the capital, Pyongyang, has been affected by the floodwaters, and the country's annual mass games festival, a major propaganda exercise by the communist regime, has been canceled.
The Seoul-based humanitarian group, Good Friends, says the Daedong river flowing through central Pyongyang overflowed recently for the first time in 16 years, flooding several bridges and a famous landmark. The group says train and bus service to the North Korean capital has all but halted.
North Korea says the flooding has forced it to cancel next month's Arirang festival, a major annual event. The massive pageant usually features tens of thousands of North Korean performers creating tightly choreographed images praising the Stalinist regime of leader Kim Jong Il.
Leonid Petrov, a tour organizer who has been helping bring international visitors to the spectacle, says he is disappointed at the cancellation, but not surprised.
"They are badly damaged by the torrential rain. I would not be surprised if they file another appeal for humanitarian aid in the next couple of weeks or so," he said. "And of course, it would be a discrepancy if they are staging a lavish show."
North Korea says the cancellation of the festival is also a protest against planned U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled for late August. But the festival has been gone ahead in previous years when the military exercises were held.
U.N. World Food Program representative in Pyongyang Michael Dunford says it is still too early to say how extensively the weeks of heavy rains will affect North Korea's already desperate food situation.
A new World Food Program report estimates this month's flooding destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of farmland, and may have contaminated nearly 100,000 tons of food supplies.
The official North Korean news agency, KCNA, has reported that hundreds of people are dead or missing, and tens of thousand of houses and public buildings have been destroyed. KCNA called the economic loss "tremendous."
International Red Cross East Asia delegate Hope Weiner says the floods have taken a serious toll in the six North Korean provinces where her teams are working.
"Nearly 17,000 families remain homeless," said Weiner. "You had flash floods that either totally or partially destroyed 23,400 homes."
North Korea has suffered widespread starvation due to economic and agricultural mismanagement since the mid-1990s, with deaths estimated at more than one-million. South Korea, one of the North's main humanitarian supporters, has suspended food aid because of Pyongyang's test-firing of a series of missiles earlier this month.