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South Korea to Discuss Aid for Flood Victims in North

After initially turning down offers of emergency aid following devastating floods, North Korea has told South Korean Red Cross officials it is willing to discuss assistance for the flood victims. A South Korean charity says the death toll from the floods might be far higher than reported.

South Korean Red Cross officials say a meeting with their northern counterparts scheduled for Saturday will cover plans for food assistance and reconstruction following severe flooding that struck the North in July.

Last week, South Korean officials offered a $10-million aid package. The South Korean Red Cross says it can donate up to 100,000 tons of rice.

Saturday's meeting at North Korea's Mount Kumgang tourist resort will be the first between the two Red Cross societies since Pyongyang test-launched seven missiles on July 5. The tests prompted international condemnation, and South Korea suspended all aid to the North.

On July 10, five days after the launches, a typhoon and heavy monsoon rains slammed into North Korea. Pyongyang rarely releases bad news, so its announcement that hundreds of people were dead or missing and tens of thousands of buildings had been destroyed was an indication that the flood damage had been severe.

A South Korean Red Cross official who asked not to be named says the group currently has three investigators in Pyongyang calculating the damage.

The official says investigators estimate there are 151 deaths, 29 people still missing, and nearly 17,000 people left homeless.

This is in stark contrast to numbers provided by a private South Korean charity. The group, Good Friends, says its sources in the North report that almost 55,000 people are dead or missing.

Red Cross officials say the Good Friends figures are not credible. But North Korea observers do say floods could pose serious long-term risks to the country's already meager food supply.

Government mismanagement in North Korea helped precipitate severe flooding and economic collapse in the mid-1990's. This led to long-term famine, in which aid groups say up to one million northerners have perished.

Gang Yeo-gyeong of Good Friends says the damage this time is even worse than it was a decade ago.

"We think it is because of the 10-year-long poverty that has afflicted the North Koreans, which has resulted in the destruction of forests," said Gang.

Since the famine first hit, the country has existed largely on international donations of food, fertilizer and fuel. There is concern that the North Korean leadership is directing as much food as it can to ruling communist party members and the military that props up the communist regime, leaving the common people with little to eat.

Impoverished North Koreans have uprooted plants and trees in a search for food and fuel. Experts say this makes the landscape more susceptible to flooding.