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UN Warns North Korean Flooding May Make Dire Food Situation Even Worse

A team representing several U.N. humanitarian agencies is in North Korea to investigate damage from heavy flooding. A U.N. spokesman says floodwaters may have done extensive damage to crops, further worsening the North's perennial food shortages. Hundreds of thousands are said to have lost their homes, and Pyongyang says 11 percent of the country's cropland has been destroyed. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

U.N. investigators traveled to North Korea following reports of devastating flooding. Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, says the situation is alarming.

"At this point we are treating this as a very significant and very serious humanitarian crisis," he said.

It has rained steadily on the Korean peninsula for several weeks. North Korean official media have broadcast images of flooded roads, collapsed bridges, and even residents of the capital, Pyongyang, wading waist-deep in water.

The official North Korean news agency reported 11 percent of the country's corn and rice fields has been submerged, buried or washed away.

Risley says the team saw serious damage to croplands in one province. He confirms that many growing areas are simply washed away.

"And if that is the case in the other three provinces, all of which are considered, generally speaking, the breadbasket of North Korea, then that indeed would have a very serious reduction on the overall amount of harvest," added Risley.

He says the flooding comes at a sensitive time in the growing season, compounding the damage.

North Korea has experienced dire food shortages since the mid-1990's, when hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have died of starvation. The World Food Program says the North produces a million tons below its minimum requirements every year - making it heavily dependent on outside donations.

Risley says North Korean officials report an alarming number of displaced citizens from the flooding.

"It would appear that anywhere between 200 and 300,000 persons are presently without proper shelter. These are people who will require immediate emergency food rations and food assistance," he continued.

Flooding hits North Korea so hard because its impoverished residents have stripped the mountainsides bare of just about anything edible or combustible, leading to erosion. Risley says he witnessed that during a visit to the North this year.

"And you really can see, unfortunately, how dangerous the specter of flooding is. Very few of the hills or mountains nearby had any vegetation, any trees whatsoever on them," said Risley.

Experts say South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, due to visit Pyongyang in two weeks for a summit, is likely to unveil a generous aid package for the North. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, says the world body will do all it can to help. U.S. State Department officials say Washington, too, may offer new aid.