Between August 29 and September 1, 2016, Typhoon Lionrock poured a foot of rain onto parts of North Korea causing widespread flooding, the most severe being in the Tumen River which marks, with the Yalu River, the boundary between China and North Korea. According to aid workers from the Red Cross as many as 100,000 people are homeless and 140,000 are in need of disaster relief while 133 people have died and 395 are missing overall. Temperatures in North Korea drop well below zero Fahrenheit in a much of the northern regions in a few months and so the exposure to extreme cold is a high risk. The flooding also destroyed 40,000 acres of agricultural land which will affect food security in the area since the crop is usually harvested in late September and October. The North Korea political prison camps which hold more than 100,000 people may be flooded which puts the prisoners at severe risk, since they cannot leave their camps for higher ground. And because the prisoners are in the lowest class in the North Korean caste system, they will get no disaster relief unless the international agencies insist on it.
Over the past two decades aid agencies have recorded epidemics of typhoid and paratyphoid, which are highly contagious and can be spread through untreated water.
In an unusual move, the North Korean government appealed for international assistance for the victims of the floods, which they claim are the worst since 1945. Water borne diseases have been an ongoing problem in North Korea since the government has seldom purchased enough chlorine to treat the urban water supplies across the country. Flooding also caused widespread damage to water pumping and treatment plants, rendering wells unusable, and shut down the water supply for nearly 600,000 people. Over the past two decades aid agencies have recorded epidemics of typhoid and paratyphoid which are highly contagious and can be spread through untreated water. The most recent epidemic of these diseases was in Pyongyang in 2011, affecting one in two households and causing mass panic. Aid agencies and donor governments have provided 12 million metric tons of food aid to North Korea since 1995, but very limited assistance to health programs which are the form of aid least able to be stolen or diverted by the power elites in the country and may be more important in some ways than food aid.
Floods are not new to North Korea, its having sustained severe flooding in 1995, 2007, 2013 and 2015. The Pyongyang government blamed the flooding of 1995 for the famine which ravaged the country between 1994 and 1998 killing at least 2.5 million people according to Hwang Jang-yop (the North Korean Politburo member who defected to South Korea in 1997). At the time the United Nations estimated that no more than 20 percent of the food deficit of the country was responsible for the famine, but the government has blamed the weather rather than their policies for their people’s suffering.
The severity of the flooding has increased each time because of the widespread deforestation of the mountainous regions of the country driven by the collapse of the North Korean economy in the 1990’s. Hungry people denuded the mountain sides of trees for firewood, to clear land to plant crops (a counter-productive agricultural practice), and to trade timber they cut for food across the border with Chinese merchants. With each successive rainstorm, topsoil, with no trees to hold it to the mountain sides, has slid into the rivers raising the river bed so high they hold less and less water each year. If one looks at this flooding in isolation it appears to be part of a historic pattern of natural disasters.
Satellite photographs taken by Beyond Parallel in mid-September of the flooded area do not show any aid or reconstruction efforts in two cities—Musan and Hoeryong—but, there may be some indications that construction started later. The North Korean government has claimed that resources are being mobilized to help the flood victims and disaster relief efforts are underway.
Nonetheless, many of the flood victims may still have to fend for themselves this winter. Something more could also be going on here that explains why Pyongyang has taken the unusual decision to appeal for disaster assistance from its enemies (much of the outside world). The floods represent a risk to the Pyongyang regime because the absence of an aggressive response by the central government could raise the anger level of North Korean citizens against their own government. How do we know that public anger is rising against Pyongyang?
CSIS conducted the first public opinion survey through Beyond Parallel inside North Korea (all other surveys have been of defectors which may have skewed the results) and the results were instructive. The people surveyed show growing anger and bitterness toward the central government’s ongoing suppression or restrictions on market activities, which families rely on to feed themselves after the Public Distribution System collapsed in the 1990’s (except for Pyongyang and the party elite, which continued to get food rations). Defector and other surveys have shown that a declining portion of the North Korean people get significant food rations from the Public Distribution System. One person interviewed by Beyond Parallel said “no one looks after regular citizens in their daily lives” and another complained about people “going to prison for the crime of selling things on the black market”. Some argue the continuing failure of the central government to care for their own people has been mitigated by international aid efforts which make up for the government’s incompetence, but an international bailout this time appears unlikely.
International donations to NGOs, the Red Cross, and UN agencies attempting to respond to the flood disaster have received funding to meet only 11 percent of the assessed needs. The anemic response to these appeals results from two factors: fatigue by donors which have been providing disaster assistance to North Korea intermittently since 1995; and the North Korean government’s decision to direct their limited resources to the development of nuclear weapons and long range missiles instead of supporting the human needs of their own people, which unmet are life-threatening. The question remains open as to whether the North Korean people are connecting their government’s diversion of the nation’s limited financial resources to weapons of mass destruction with difficulties in feeding their families, getting minimal health care, accessing clean water, and heating their homes. If they make that connection, the growing anger of the public could mutate into rage, and Pyongyang could face political unrest. One major shock that hits enough people across the country could be the precipitating event that starts a chain reaction and that brings down the government. These floods do not appear widespread enough to be that shock this time, but some other shock in the future could be. Only time will tell.
Andrew S. Natsios is an executive professor at the Bush School of Government & Public Service and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University. He formerly served as the Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2001-2006.