North Korea agreed yesterday to discuss aid from South Korea to help recover from devastating floods after previously refusing to accept any such relief, while a report said the disaster left some 54,700 people dead or missing.
The North's Red Cross sent a message to their South Korean counterparts accepting the offer to assist the country recover from the aftermath of last month's disaster, said Unification Ministry spokesman Yang Chang-seok. The two sides will discuss the aid tomorrow at North Korea's Diamond Mountain tourist enclave.
Pyongyang had previously spurned aid from South Korea's Red Cross, saying it would handle the disaster on its own.
The South Korean government plans to send more than 70 billion won (US$72 million) to North Korea in joint donations with civic groups.
However, Seoul has said its aid doesn't represent any change in its decision to halt regular humanitarian assistance to the North after Pyongyang test-fired seven missiles last month against international objections.
North Korea's official media has reported that "hundreds" were killed in the floods, without giving specific numbers.
On Wednesday, a South Korean group claimed the death toll had been far higher at 54,700 people dead or missing and some 2.5 million homeless.
The Seoul-based private aid agency Good Friends claimed it has "many sources" inside North Korea but didn't say where it obtained the figures, which could not be independently confirmed because the North tightly controls all media and information. Good Friends refused to elaborate on the report, saying they feared their sources would face government reprisal.
Good Friends' previous reports of activities inside the isolated country have been confirmed by South Korean government sources, although some of the aid group's figures have been disputed.
Choson Sinbo, a newspaper published in Japan by a pro-North Korean association linked to the Pyongyang regime, said this month that the floods killed at least 549 people and left 295 others missing.
A senior official at the pro-North Korean association said the death toll could have since risen but "I have feeling that the toll number is too high." He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing policy.
Officials with South Korea's Red Cross and Unification Ministry said they couldn't confirm the report as they don't have any information.
Good Friends said that the floods destroyed more than 230 bridges and inundated hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, further straining the North's ability to feed its population.
North Korea has relied on foreign food handouts since the mid-1990s, when famine caused by natural disasters and decades of mismanagement is believed to have killed up to 2 million people.
"Food prices are skyrocketing as food distribution has become nearly impossible" due to the floods, the group said.
Good Friends also claimed that the North has prevented those left homeless from traveling to curb possible unrest.