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In rare plea, North Korea seeks outside help after flooding

North Korea's official state media acknowledged the flooding is the result of the 'heaviest downpours' since 1945. But if international aid is delivered, will it reach the country's most affected citizens?  

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    In this undated image from video distributed Sept. 12, 2016 by North Korean broadcaster KRT, North Korean workers build levees along a river bank. North Korea issued a rare acknowledgment of the damage caused by flooding brought on by typhoon Lionrock.
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Days after North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear test, it issued an unusual acknowledgment that flooding has devastated the northern part of the country.

According to a report the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published in English Sunday, the northeast region of the country has experienced the "heaviest downpours" since 1945 with "tens of thousands" of buildings destroyed and people left homeless and "suffering great hardship," according to CNN.

The report from KCNA, the country's official state media, is an uncharacteristic admission by the Hermit Kingdom that all is not well there. Because KCNA published the report in English, it was likely written to draw the attention of the international community. But such requests are often met with reluctance from global donors because it's unclear how much humanitarian aid will reach the people of the hardest-hit regions, as North Korea has imposed conditions on international donors' abilities to monitor aid. 

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"Perhaps there is a distant hope that given the scale of the disaster, maybe the international community might respond," Bradley Williams, an international relations professor at City University in Hong Kong, told CNN "But these hopes are undermined by their recent nuclear test – it's hard to pinpoint the psychology behind it."

The flooding, which began Aug. 29, was brought on by typhoon Lionrock. According to a United Nations report from the Office of Humanitarian Affairs, the floods have killed 133 people, another 395 are missing, and 140,000 are "in urgent need of assistance." More than 35,500 houses have also been damaged, 69 percent of which are completely destroyed, according the report.

The North Korean government led a joint-needs assessment from Sept. 6 to 9, according to the report. This assessment included UN agencies, and the DPRK Red Cross. Out of the assessment and ensuing discussions, aid from in-country stockpiles, including food, nutritional supplements, and other emergency and educational supplies have been released.

The government has also distributed relief goods and building materials, and is working desperately to reopen roads. Parts of the hardest-hit areas, Musan and Yonsa counties, remain inaccessible.

The Central Committee of the Worker's Party of Korea (WPK) also issued a public appeal to party members and service personnel of the Korean People's Army to come together to help those in the worst-hit regions, according to the KCNA, as reported by CNN. The WPK has also redirected a nationwide 200-day mass mobilization campaign, initially aimed to boost the economy, to help flood victims.

"The country's manpower and material and technical potentials are now concentrated on the flood damage rehabilitation," said the KCNA, according to the Associated Press. It said the ruling party has urged citizens to "achieve the miraculous victory of converting misfortune into favorable conditions ... with the tremendous might of single-minded unity!"

This isn't the first time North Korea has made some kind of call for assistance from the international community. In 1995, then-leader Kim Jong Il asked for massive donations of food at the height of a famine that killed a reported 2 million people, as Donald Kirk reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2006. This marked the first time North Korea asked the World Food Program for help.

One problem aid workers previously encountered sending food into the country was the lack of control. "We cannot monitor what will happen," Kang Jong-suk, an official at the Unification Ministry, said in 2006.

That inability to monitor has played a significant role in other donors' willingness to offer aid.

David Blair of the Telegraph wrote humanitarian crises often put countries like North Korea or semi-democratic states such as those in Africa in a thorny predicament.

"Why? Because the governments of these countries will rarely admit the existence of a problem, especially if – as in North Korea – their policies helped to cause it in the first place," writes Mr. Blair. 

"And of all possible disasters, famine is the one that governments are most unwilling to acknowledge."

Meles Zenawi, a late prime minister of Ethiopia, said the worst aspect of the 1984 famine that ravaged his country was the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. "But the second worst," he added, "was having to beg for help."

The natural disaster in North Korea could prove problematic again, as 16,000 hectares of arable land have been inundated, according to the UN report. But the flooding also comes as North Korea will likely experience more UN sanctions from the fifth nuclear missile test it conducted Friday.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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