The problem with the Red Cross narrative of North Korea’s floods

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I had originally intended to use this post solely to encourage readers to check out this story by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Asia Pacific. But as I was reading through the story, I realized there are several issues with it that need to be pointed out. It offers a comprehensive narrative of this year’s flooding in northern North Korea, which has devastated parts of North Hamgyong province. The photographs add a crucial human dimension to the ghastly figures for the damage. But unfortunately, the IFRC casts blame in all the wrong directions and fails to point out the core of the problem.

First, the key passages of the piece:

On August 29 the rains began. They continued for the next two days, swelling the Tumen river as it coursed along the northeast border of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  The heavy downpour was a consequence of the tail end of Typhoon Lionrock which had collided with a low pressure weather front as it tracked across China.  In just 24 hours up to 300 mm of rain fell over parts of DPRK’s North Hamgyong Province.

Streams of water flowed down barren mountains. They merged in ravines to become raging torrents of water – flash floods – which carved through rural communities in the valleys below, demolishing everything in their path.  The River Tumen also burst its banks, swallowing entire settlements in the dead of night.

The floods are considered to be the worst in decades yet this has been a silent disaster, largely unnoticed outside DPRK.  Hundreds of lives have been lost and the scale of devastation has been immense.

Now, one month on, the full extent of what happened is still emerging. According to the government some 30,000 homes have been damaged, submerged or completely destroyed and 70,000 people rendered homeless.

[…]

For days villages across Musan and Yonson Counties remained cut off as thousands of rescuers were mobilised to the area to repair roads and bridges and remove the earth and rocks deposited by landslides.

In the Sambong Bo area of Musan County,  the water level of the River Tumen had risen by over four metres in a matter of hours. When it broke its banks 500 homes were swept away.  At least 20 other communities further along the river suffered the same fate. It is still not clear how many died.

Reaching the flood-affected area requires a three-day drive from the capital Pyongyang but it only took 24 hours for the DPRK Red Cross to mobilize over 1,000 of its volunteers from the area to respond to the disaster. They supported local authorities in search and rescue efforts and also provided first aid services to the injured. Trained disaster response teams were deployed and within days emergency relief supplies for 28,000 people had been released from the Red Cross regional disaster preparedness stocks which were stored in warehouses in South Hamgyong and Pyongyang.

Items such as tarpaulins, tents and tools to make emergency shelters were distributed to flood-affected families. People also received other essentials such as warm bedding, kitchen sets, water containers and toiletries.

[…]

But there are other vulnerabilities. According to the UN, North Hamgyong Province has some of the highest levels of stunting and wasting among under five children. The Public Distribution System, upon which 78 per cent of the population of the province relies, is well below target levels (300 grams compared to the target of 573 grams) and not sufficiently diverse to cover nutritional requirements.

The floods damaged over 27,000 hectares of arable land. The rice and corn were ready to be harvested but now, many families’ food has been washed away along with crops, livestock and food gardens.

To make matters worse, more than 45 health clinics have been damaged by floodwaters and there is a critical shortage of basic equipment and essential medicines. Water supply to 600,000 people across the province has been disrupted and for clean water, some communities are now dependent on a few hand pumps and dug wells, which are most likely contaminated by the floods.

On 21 September, the IFRC launched a 15.2 million Swiss Francs emergency appeal (USD 15.5 million, Euros 13.9 million) to reach more than 330,000 people affected by the floods.

The appeal aims to provide a variety of emergency assistance over the next 12 months. Emergency water supply will be installed and teams will be mobilised to avert communicable diseases by improving sanitation and promoting good hygiene. Medical supplies will be provided for health teams on the ground and technical support provided to help with the reconstruction of permanent homes.

The appeal will also be used to purchase winterization kits that will help thousands of families through the hardship of the coming months. These include supplies of coal for heating and cooking, toiletries, winter clothes and quilts, basic food stocks and water purification tablets.

But according to Chris Staines international help needs to scale up.

“This is a disaster on a scale that that no-one seems to have acknowledged. When you add up all the threats that people are facing today in DPRK there is a very real risk of a secondary disaster unfolding in the months ahead if we don’t get the help that is needed immediately”.

Full article here:
Suffering in Silence
IFRC Asia
Shorthand Social
2016-09-29

Undoubtedly, this is a tragedy on a scale that is difficult to fathom even with the accompanying pictures of some of the devastation. Readers who wish to donate to the IFRC disaster relief efforts can do so here.

But the narrative lacks a crucial component, namely the government’s responsibility in disaster management and prevention, and the connection between the economic system and North Korea’s recurring floods. Now, readers familiar with the North Korean NGO context will be well aware that this is a sensitive political topic that NGOs and aid organizations are often reluctant to discuss, for good reasons. They depend on maintaining good relations with the North Korean government in order to continue operating in the country, and these relations are sensitive at best.

That said, the way in which the IFRC narrative seems to fault only one party — the international community, for not giving the disaster more attention — is strange, to say the least. For it is not the international community that has created the systemic deficiencies that contribute to making floods a yearly recurring phenomenon. Rain clouds do not gather only over North Korea. Anyone who has spent late summer and fall in South Korea will be familiar with the torrential rains that sweep across the country on the same regular basis that they hit North Korea. And yet, we never hear about human suffering and disasters in South Korea on an even comparable level with those that hit North Korea. Some landslides tend to happen, and sometimes the rains even claim lives. But they do not paralyze whole regions of the country and they do not cause humanitarian disasters on the southern side of the border.

The reasons that North Korea is hit with such particularly great damage from the rains, year after year, largely stem from its economic system. To name only a couple of examples: trees have been felled en masse due to a lack of fuel, causing erosion as not enough trees are left to suck up the rainwater, and the population has had to resort to clearing hills from trees to generate more farmland, particularly during the “Arduous March” of the 1990s. Moreover, in command economies, quotas for both wood and food need to be filled no matter what methods have to be employed — I am unable to find a source for the historical evolution of tree felling in North Korea prior to the 1990s, but most likely, such a logic has also contributed to the barren hillsides around the country. To be fair, Kim Jong-un has focused a great deal of attention on reforestation, which is arguably one of the most important but least noted policy focuses during his tenure. But thus far, not much seems to have happened in practice.

Barren and eroded hillsides in Namyang, North Hamgyong Province, as seen from Tumen City in China, June 2016. On the Chinese side, the equivalent hills are covered with trees. Photograph by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Barren and eroded hillsides in Namyang, North Hamgyong Province, as seen from Tumen City in China, June 2016. On the Chinese side, the equivalent hills are covered with trees. Photograph by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

So: on the one hand, the IFRC may well be right that coverage of North Korea’s humanitarian disaster should render more media coverage. But on the other hand the late summer floods are such a regular occurrence that they should hardly count as news anymore. NGOs and aid organizations need to air on the side of political caution in their dealings with the North Korean regime, but their failure to call out the government for not rectifying the problems causing the damage in the first place may well be doing more harm than good in the long run.

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