With contributions from aid workers.
The North Korean people have faced truly extreme humanitarian challenges in 2020. Before this summer, the DPRK was dealing with high levels of chronic malnutrition and severe economic disruptions caused by COVID-19 shutdowns and ongoing sanctions. The multiple typhoons that have hit over the past few weeks causing widespread flooding around the country exacerbate an already difficult year. Even after decades of visiting the North, it is devastating to witness the array of grave humanitarian difficulties that the North Korean people must endure. Sadly, humanitarian assistance for relief, recovery and rebuilding is unlikely to be delivered any time soon.
The Tyranny of Geography
The topography of the Korean Peninsula, featuring steep mountains and narrow valleys, makes it vulnerable to flooding; every mid-summer, it receives significant rainfall. In a normal season, as much as half of the annual rainfall can come during the roughly month-long “rainy season” that ordinarily begins in late June and ends by mid-July. As long as the rain showers are gentle, the hillside vegetation and natural drainage system of creeks, lakes, reservoirs and rivers can absorb and remove the excess water without widespread damage. But if the rainy season is prolonged, or if typhoons bring high winds and dump large amounts of rainfall in a short period of time, the system is quickly overwhelmed, causing mudslides, large-scale flooding and crop damage, loss of homes and infrastructure, and lives.
2020 Has Been a Bad Year
The rainy season of 2020 was prolonged and heavy, and was followed by three typhoons that struck different parts of the country in a two-week period: Bavi (August 26-27), Maysak (September 2-3) and Haishen (September 7). These storms brought further damage to already hard-hit communities, and new levels of hardship to other cities and regions that were spared mass flooding earlier in the season. Meanwhile, the risk from more typhoons continues into the fall.
According to a September 16, 2020 Pyongyang Times article, the summer of 2020 brought the second-highest level of precipitation recorded in the DPRK in the last 25 years. During the typhoons, the North Korean government issued emergency warnings and permitted unusual live, on-the-scene reporting showing significant flooding in Wonsan (North Korea’s fifth-largest city) and other areas. Yet so far, although the current flooding is likely much worse and more widespread than prior years, North Korea has neither publicly requested outside assistance nor shared precise damage estimates or casualty figures. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the fight against the pandemic has been the government’s top priority, meaning tight quarantine measures and travel and economic restrictions remain in place. These priorities were further reiterated on August 14 when Kim Jong Un reportedly said at a Politburo meeting, “The worsening coronavirus situation around the globe calls for tighter border closures and stricter virus prevention measures, and not allowing any outside assistance whatsoever regarding the flood damage.” However, even though detailed casualty and damage figures are not available, much can be gleaned from the broadcast footage and experience gained from extensive United Nations (UN) and NGO travel and prior humanitarian engagement in the country.
The View From Ground Zero
The Korean Peninsula north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) ranges from coastal rice-growing areas and lowlands planted with corn, soybean, vegetables, fruit trees and other crops, to mountainous areas. Steep mountain slopes are drained by small creeks running down narrow valleys, feeding into larger rivers that meander through agricultural areas, villages and towns to the sea. On previous visits to the North, aid workers have seen firsthand the widespread devastation that happens when too much water falls in these vulnerable areas in too short a time. Homes, schools, clinics and other buildings rim the edges of the narrow valleys, and when heavy rains hit steep slopes, the small creeks that drain these valleys turn into rushing torrents that soon sweep away everything in their path. Mountainsides lacking in cover vegetation can quickly become saturated and slough off, burying buildings below in mud. Standing water around the base of mud-brick buildings can cause them to “melt” and collapse. Outhouses and open waste channels are soon overrun, contaminating the floodwaters. Perimeter walls built for security collapse. Phone and electric lines are severed. Rural dirt roads turn into mud, making the surface impassible. Bridges break as abutments wash away.
As the ground becomes saturated and rivers overflow, nearby croplands are inundated. Crops like corn, soybean and rice that were weeks away from being harvested instead risk rotting in the fields. Farmers and community members will do what they can to try to salvage crops by tying them up, to hopefully allow them time to finish ripening for harvest. But if the damage is too widespread, it is simply an overwhelming task.
Swollen rivers inundate towns, uproot trees and vegetation, wash away topsoil, and deposit rocks, refuse and waste that have been pulled into the churning waters. Entire towns can be swept away, the landscape forever changed once the waters recede. It will take months of backbreaking work to rebuild homes, roads, rail lines and bridges and to remove debris from agricultural fields. With topsoil buried or washed away, the productivity of affected fields is often reduced going forward, making life even harder for those working the ground.
In the immediate aftermath of flooding, those who have lost their homes and personal belongings may be housed in the small apartments or residences of family or friends, or find shelter in community buildings, while communities try to rebuild housing. In some cases, “shock troops” of soldiers or organized volunteer laborers from various sectors of the society may be sent by the government to quickly reconstruct devastated homes and other buildings in larger communities. But in poorer areas, it seems that local communities and even individual families are left to try to rebuild and repair on their own—with few resources, an already overburdened workload and with winter just around the corner.
Inundated or partially inundated homes must be repaired; mounds of mud must be removed and belongings cleaned—yet in most cases, the only water available for cleaning is contaminated. Kitchen gardens that individual households heavily depend on must be immediately replanted, but that may be impossible if seed stocks have been lost in the flooding. People who are already malnourished and suffering will struggle even more for basic survival in the coming weeks and months from increased incidence of diarrhea caused by contaminated water sources, the sudden loss of food stocks, garden produce, or fuel, and the hugely increased workload.
Help Is Not on the Way
The damage to the roads alone makes it very difficult for relief supplies, if available at all, to be delivered. Remote communities can be entirely cut off for days or weeks while mudslides are removed, often by hand, and roads are repaired enough to restore even basic travel. Furthermore, under normal circumstances, September and October are some of the busiest months in the DPRK as they are critical for harvesting the main food crops of corn, rice and soybean. Roads must be passable in order for crops to be harvested and moved from the fields to the threshing areas and out for distribution, and electricity lines and supply must be restored in order to run the threshing machines.
The virtual closure of the border with China and the halt in nearly all external relief shipments since January 2020 out of concern for COVID-19 will make longer-term recovery efforts even more difficult. Vehicles of all kinds are needed for rebuilding efforts—to transport building materials like sand, gravel and concrete. But the parts and tires needed to keep these vehicles operational usually come from China. With trade cut off due to COVID-19 quarantines, many of these vehicles will break, further limiting transportation and supply networks. Similarly, while greenhouses have greatly expanded food production in the shoulder seasons between late fall and early spring, the supply of replacement greenhouse plastic is critical—which has also very likely been significantly curtailed due to border closures related to COVID-19 measures.
People injured during the flooding or the rebuilding effort have no option but to seek treatment at clinics or hospitals that are overwhelmed and ill-equipped to feed or house them, let alone provide them with significant medical help. Besides those already at the margins of society and highly vulnerable to shocks of any kind (children under five, pregnant and nursing women, the elderly, the disabled, those who are sick, etc.), those who lost their homes to the flooding, and communities most affected will be particularly vulnerable to increased rates of malnutrition. As people crowd together in small spaces due to the loss of shelter, there is not only the potential for the spread of COVID-19, but also the transmission of more common communicable diseases like tuberculosis or multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.
Perhaps most devastating is the emotional impact and disruption caused by the loss of loved ones, homes or livelihoods on people already on a knife-edge of survival, and the overwhelming workload. Usual tasks must be completed (on top of urgent flood restoration duties at both the community level and at the household level) before the cold of winter sets in. For millions of North Koreans, the challenge is formidable but help will not be on the way until outside humanitarian assistance and related travel is again facilitated by North Korea, a reality recognized on September 11 by US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in remarks to the National Committee on North Korea (NCNK):
We recognize that North Korea is facing an unusually severe set of challenges this year that perhaps is making it more difficult for Pyongyang to make the decision to engage. But I can assure you we will be ready when the DPRK is ready. In the meantime, it is critical that we and the international community remain focused on the humanitarian challenges faced by the North Korean people.
Even after visiting the DPRK over two decades, it is heartbreaking to witness the damage and setbacks caused by floods. This year, it is even more difficult to see the devastation on communities and lives from afar without being able to lend a helping hand.