ONSONG, North Korea — North Korean soldiers and relief teams rushed to clear roads and railway tracks, build shelters and provide food and sanitation Friday to tens of thousands of residents in a remote part of the country near the Chinese border that was devastated by heavy downpours and flash floods when a typhoon pounded their villages last week.
Strong winds and flash floods caused by Typhoon Lionrock have killed more than 130 people, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and crippled infrastructure in North Korea’s northern tip, according to officials in Pyongyang, the capital, and international aid organizations.
Workers in hard hats and rubber boots used shovels and formed lines on Friday to hand-remove rocks and rubble from flooded areas in Onsong County, where damage was severe, and tried to clear twisted railroad tracks so work could begin to repair them.
“This flooding in Onsong County is worse than ever before and has resulted in very servere damage,” said Sok Gyong U, director of the Municipal Administration Bureau of Onsong County People’s Committee. “The first floors of apartment buildings in this area were flooded and buried by earth for several days, so the people here had to move out to take shelter.”
A U.N. report issued by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the floods displaced tens of thousands of people and destroyed homes, buildings and critical infrastructure.
The U.N. report said the government has confirmed 133 people were killed and another 395 were missing. It said more than 35,500 houses, schools and public buildings were damaged, with 69 percent completely destroyed. It reported widespread inundation of farmland.
North Korean media said it was the worst single case of downpours and high winds since 1945, though that claim couldn’t be verified.
Patrick Fuller, Asia Pacific spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which is on the ground in the affected area, said about 140,000 people are in urgent need of help, including food, water and shelter.
He said that in some villages virtually every building has been partially or completely destroyed, with watermarks on some buildings above head level, indicating how inundated some of the villages were by the waters.
“This is certainly worse than flooding we have seen in recent years and the picture is still unfolding,” he said in an interview in Bangkok on Tuesday. “Now, 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes so the challenges of providing shelter for those people in the short and long term are going to be immense.”
The OCHA report said humanitarian agencies have released relief materials from their stockpiles inside North Korea, including food, shelter and kitchen kits, water purification and sanitation supplies and emergency health supplies. Aid agencies have also stressed the importance of constructing shelters before the onset of North Korea’s bitterly cold winter.
Local officials in Onsong said the first snows of winter are expected to begin falling next month and the ground will be frozen, so they are rushing to build “tens of thousands” of dwellings for flood victims. They said repairing and opening roads and railroads are a top priority so that more supplies and heavy equipment can be brought in.
The hardest-hit areas are Musan and Yonsa counties, near the Chinese border in the northern tip of the country. Musan, Yonsa and Onsong are all in North Hamgyong province.
North Korea has made dealing with the disaster a top priority, sending brigades of soldiers and workers from around the country to help victims, provide medicines and build shelters.
The North Korean media have reported that a 200-day “loyalty campaign” already underway to mobilize the nation behind leader Kim Jong Un has been switched to a call for all citizens to support the recovery effort.
In a very North Korean twist, state media on Thursday reported that an “art agitation squad,” including an opera troupe and members of the National Circus, has been dispatched from Pyongyang to encourage the flood victims and relief workers.
The flooding occurred around the Tumen River, which runs between North Korea and China.
North Korea experiences frequent natural disasters that are more devastating because of its often problematic infrastructure and lack of civil engineering projects designed to mitigate damage.
In August last year, major downpours followed by flash floods killed at least 40 people and devastated parts of the Rason area, near the Russian and Chinese borders where a key special economic zone is located.
A series of floods and droughts were a contributing factor in the disastrous famine years of the 1990s — called the “arduous march” in North Korea — that nearly brought the country to economic ruin.
A repeat of that scenario is highly unlikely since the problems in the 1990s were heightened by much broader economic and political difficulties related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, which had traditionally been some of North Korea’s most important trading partners and allies.
Even so, Fuller said the latest flooding could cause food supply problems down the road.
“We don’t know yet how much of the rice crop or the cereal crop was totally destroyed but in a situation where the food security situation in normal times is pretty precarious this could really have a detrimental impact,” he said. “It could possibly be a second disaster in the months ahead.”