How a Catastrophic Flood May Help North Korea's Regime

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In a country as secretive as North Korea is, even natural disasters can be shrouded in mystery. The international aid community has struggled to determine the impact on North Koreans of the widespread flooding that followed July's torrential rainstorms. But some of the estimates suggest a human toll of biblical proportions: This week, the Seoul-based NGO Good Friends claimed that the flooding had left around 54,700 dead or missing and 2.5 million — more than a tenth of the entire population — homeless. Erica Kang, manager of Good Friends, says that many died in landslides, while large sections of the country's main rice-growing region have been washed out. If so, the flooding may be the precursor of another North Korean famine. During the 1990s, the country experienced severe food shortages brought on by floods, economic mismanagement and environmental degradation that, by some estimates, left as many as 2 million people dead. "It is a very horrific and devastating situation," says Kang.

Other NGO and government officials are skeptical of the scale of the damage claimed by Good Friends, and say that the difficulties of making any independent inquiry render an accurate assessment almost impossible. But while the North Korean regime has typically played down the extent of humanitarian suffering on their soil, this time the impression of an imminent catastrophe may actually work in Pyongyang's favor.

The regime's test-launching of seven missiles in early July had brought a tough response from its neighbors — South Korea had suspended food aid, Japan had threatened sanctions, and even China, North Korea's closest ally, consented to a U.N. Security Council resolution embargoing the transfer of missile technology to North Korea. The floods, however, may wash away the hopes of U.S. and Asian hardliners for piling the pressure on Pyongyang. On news of the flooding, South Korea quickly reversed course and promised $10 million of aid. Paik Haksoon, a North Korea specialist at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, says the South Korean government, wedded to its "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North, was looking for an opportunity to soften its stance. "The flood in North Korea has provided a window for resumption of inter-Korean dialogue," he says.

Fear of a famine following the flood bodes ill for U.S. efforts to isolate Pyongyang and pressuring it to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile programs. That policy had little to show, of course, since China and South Korea have continued to funnel aid to North Korea. Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that favors tougher action against North Korea, figures that the country's imports, which he calls "the critical link to regime survival," jumped 50% to $3 billion between 2001 and 2005.

If reports of a humanitarian crisis prove true, "there will be more pressure on the U.S." to change its policy, says David Steinberg, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University.

So far, though, Washington isn't budging. U.S. food aid to North Korea has been frozen since last year, when Washington halted deliveries after completing only half of its pledged donations, citing concerns that the food wasn't reaching those most in need. "The concerns that caused us to suspend assistance are still there because the North Koreans have not taken any steps that would address them," says one State Department official.

Despite the increased pressure following the July missile tests, North Korea remains defiant and shows no inclination to return to the six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear program. Unknown millions of North Koreans might be struggling to survive, but right now their plight may even be helping Kim Jong-Il's regime.

—With reporting by Douglas Waller/Washington and Jennifer Veale/Seoul