SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korea continues to see historic levels of rainfall, further threatening an economy already battered by a coronavirus-related lockdown.
Torrential rains have flooded hundreds of North Korean homes and wiped out vast swaths of rice fields in the country’s agricultural heartland, according to state media, intensifying worries about a poor harvest and food supply shortage.
The Korean Peninsula has seen a much longer than usual monsoon seasons this year. The rains are expected to continue for much of the week.
South Korea has seen 49 consecutive days of rain -- the longest streak on record. The downpours have caused landslides and floods in the South that have killed at least 42 people.
In the North, the extent of the damage is not precisely known. State media said Friday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited a flood-hit village in North Hwanghae province, where 600 hectares of rice fields and more than 900 homes were inundated or destroyed.
Hwanghae is the North’s most important rice-producing province. North Korean officials appearing on state TV have warned that rivers in both Hwanghae and the nearby province of Gangwon could overflow, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
The rains are already more intense than in 2007, when North Korea saw some of its worst floods, according to a briefing by South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations.
“Their agricultural system is fragile, but they have had floods many times before,” says Peter Ward, a specialist in North Korea’s economy and PhD candidate at the University of Vienna. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a significant impact on the harvest.”
North Korea is particularly vulnerable to flooding. It lacks adequate infrastructure and suffers from widespread deforestation, which resulted in part from people cutting down trees for fuel or firewood or to clear land for farming.
The floods come as North Korea steps up its anti-coronavirus efforts. Last month, North Korea locked down the southwestern city of Kaesong, after warning that a defector from the South may have brought the virus across the border.
North Korea has reported no confirmed coronavirus cases, even as it carries out strict measures to keep the disease from spreading.
North Korea’s Red Cross has mobilized 43,000 volunteers who “have been working alongside health teams and authorities to prevent Covid-19 as well as helping communities to be prepared to evacuate and reduce disaster risks in their areas, including protecting homes from flooding and landslides,” according to a statement from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“DPRK Red Cross volunteers are providing relief, including tarpaulins, kitchen sets, quilts, hygiene kits and water containers to support 2,800 of the most at risk families in North Hwanghae and (Gangwon) provinces, as well as Kaesong City, also while keeping people safe and preventing COVID-19,” the statement added.
North Korea formally closed its borders due to coronavirus concerns in late January, shortly after the outbreak was first reported in neighboring China. The lockdown has resulted in plummeting economic activity with China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner. That has put even more strain on an economy already held back by international sanctions.
In a statement last week, research firm Fitch Solutions said it expected North Korea’s economy to contract by at least 8.5% in 2020, “not only due to a suspected domestic outbreak, but also due to the negative impact the disease will have on the external sector.”
North Korea's secretive government does not consistently release its own economic data. Instead, outside organizations try to estimate North Korea’s economic figures, in part based on numbers from South Korea’s central bank or Chinese customs data.