North Korea Forces Entire Country to ‘Volunteer’ in Flood Relief Effort
North Korea is forcing state-run organizations, the military, and ordinary citizens to ‘volunteer’ for a nationwide flood relief effort in the face of heavy rains over the past month and a government refusal to accept foreign aid over coronavirus fears, sources in the country told RFA.
In Northeast Asia, the monsoon season typically begins in July and ends in September. In most years that means more rainy days than usual, but the Korean peninsula this year broke records—South Korea’s Arirang News reported 50 consecutive days of torrential rains before they finally let up Wednesday.
But unlike in the South, the North’s government lacks the capacity to respond to natural disasters.
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Friday that floods had destroyed 40,000 hectares (154 square miles) of farmland, 16,680 homes, and 630 other buildings all over the country.
“Lots of roads, bridges and railway sections [were] broken, a dam of a power station gave way and there was other severe damage in various sectors of the national economy,” the report added.
According to the KCNA report, Kim Jong Un ordered a rapid recovery effort for the areas most affected, saying they should be “fundamentally completed by October 10,” the 75th anniversary of ruling party.
But the North Korean leader also shunned the idea of receiving foreign flood aid, saying that the risk of COVID-19 contamination was too great.
With no aid coming in from abroad, citizens are being made to donate labor and resources to provide relief.
“The Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party], gave the order to mobilize the entire party, army, and all the people to help the effort to recover from the damage caused by the rainy season,” an official in North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service Thursday.
“All agencies, businesses and households across the country were ordered to ‘voluntarily participate’ in projects to provide support to flood-stricken areas,” the source said.
According to the source, each organization was given a different responsibility in the recovery effort.
“First, the factories and businesses were given tasks like providing equipment and materials needed to recover from the damage,” said the source.
“The big factories in North Hamgyong province, like the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex, the Songjin Iron and Steel Complex, and the Komusan Cement Factory are working on projects to send cement and steel to the damaged areas, and the smaller factories have been ordered to send construction tools, food and daily necessities depending on [availability,]” the source said.
Being forced to volunteer resources that companies need for themselves has not gone over well, according to the source.
“Officials at the companies ordered to provide aid are in a difficult spot,” the source said, adding, “But they dare not raise objections. This order was issued by the Central Committee following the instructions of the Highest Dignity,” the source said, using an honorific term to refer to Kim Jong Un.
“The officials are seriously worried about the order to restore the damaged areas before October 10,” the source said.
“If the officials fail with the flood recovery project, they will be marked by a lack of loyalty to the party and will be subject to severe ideological censure, so [they] are on high alert,” the source added.
‘Volunteer’ the people
The public are facing the same demands as the state organizations, a second source told RFA.
“As this recovery project is nationwide, the general population is no exception,” said the Ryanggang Province resident, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“Local government offices are launching propaganda projects to encourage the people’s participation as if they are helping their own parents and brethren, but in reality the authorities are forcing us to provide aid,” the second source said.
“The list of aid items imposed on us includes various types of supplies like food, kitchen appliances, fuel, blankets, clothes, school supplies, plastic film and other work tools needed for the restoration of buildings including gloves and shovels,” the second source added.
The resident said this was not the first time the country called upon the people to provide flood relief.
“When there was a severe flood in the northern part of the country in 2016, the Central Committee ordered the residents to provide aid then, too. People are just exhausted,” the second source said.
“We’re all aware that the Highest Dignity personally visited Taechong-ri, North Hwanghae province,” the source said, referring to Kim’s highly publicized personal visit to an especially hard hit town earlier this week.
The photo-op was meant to show the North Korean leader’s love for the people and dedication to their well being, as he ordered emergency supplies from his own reserves be given to the flood victims, but the second source said the gesture instead made the residents grumble about the unfairness of giving one particular town special treatment.
“Our lives are extremely difficult due to the combination of coronavirus crisis and natural disasters, so the people complain, asking why the Central Committee does not take charge of supporting the restoration of the flood damage as they did in the case of Taechong-ri.”
Kim Jong Un’s refusal of foreign aid was chalked up to concerns over the possible transmission of COVID-19 from contaminated supplies, but a South Korean expert told RFA the need for aid outweighs the risk.
“It is inappropriate for the Supreme Leader of North Korea to mention outside aid,” said Cho Han Bum, of the Korea Institute of National Unification.
“It can be seen that the flood damage is so great that outside support is needed. There must have been talk in North Korea about getting outside aid, but Kim Jong Un seems to have drawn the line at that point,” he said.
But Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies, told RFA the reasons for the refusal are legitimate.
“In order for aid to be delivered to North Korea in a proper way, there should be quarantine measures in place and the international organizations would require monitoring, wouldn’t they?” he said.
“Since it is difficult in the current national emergency quarantine system, I think that’s why they are not going to receive flood aid from the outside world,” he added.
Red Cross provides relief
Despite Kim Jong Un’s orders, the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) told RFA it is providing aid to North Korean flood victims.
“The DPRK Red Cross is providing relief to support 2,800 families affected by the floods in North Hwanghae and Kangwon provinces, including family tents for people most at risk, tarpaulins, shelter tool kits, kitchen sets and quilts to help people with their urgent needs,” said Antony Balmain, the IFRC’s Asia-Pacific communications manager.
“DPRK Red Cross volunteers are also providing hygiene kits, water containers and water purification tablets, all while engaging in COVID-19 prevention activities,” he said.
Seoul-based NK News reported that state media aired images of Taechong-ri flood victims in tents provided by the IFRC, and later censored the images to hide their foreign origin.
According to IFRC figures, 22 people have lost their lives in the floods.
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