North Korea's Kim Jong Un calls for relief campaign in rain-hit areas as South Korea, US discuss offering aid

Mr Kim Jong Un has mobilised the military to carry out the relief work amid concerns over an economic crisis and food shortage. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS, THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has mobilised the military to carry out relief work in areas recently hit by heavy rains, state media said on Sunday (Aug 8), amid concerns over an economic crisis and food shortage.

The ruling Worker's Party's Central Military Commission held a meeting of its chapter in the eastern province of South Hamgyong to discuss damage and recovery from the downpour, the official KCNA news agency said.

An early monsoon season arrived on the Korean peninsula last month, with torrential rains also inflicting damage in some southern regions.

North Korean state TV released footage this week showing submerged houses and destroyed bridges and railroads in Hamgyong, saying some 1,170 homes were devastated and 5,000 people evacuated.

Mr Kim did not attend the meeting but party officials conveyed his message that the military should kick off a relief campaign and provide necessary supplies in the region, KCNA said.

"It was also emphasised that he called for awakening and arousing the (party) officials... into waging the recovery campaign skilfully and unyieldingly," KCNA said.

KCNA did not specify the extent of rain damage but said the military commission explored emergency measures to rebuild the disaster-stricken areas, stabilise people's living, prevent the coronavirus and minimise crop injuries.

The meeting came amid concerns over a crisis in a reclusive economy that has already been dogged by international sanctions, aimed at curbing its nuclear and weapons programmes.

Mr Kim said in June the country faced a "tense" food situation, citing the coronavirus pandemic and last year's typhoons.

Recently, South Korea's central bank said North Korea's economy suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years in 2020.

North Korea has not confirmed any Covid-19 cases but closed borders, halted trade and imposed strict prevention measures, seeing the pandemic as an issue of national survival.

South Korean lawmakers said last week that North Korea needed some one million tonnes of rice, with military and emergency reserves running out.

South Korea and the US are discussing the possibility of providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea as a way to engage the regime, but it remains to be seen whether Pyongyang is ready to return to dialogue.

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks over the phone on Friday, during which the two officials consulted on avenues of cooperation with Pyongyang, including humanitarian cooperation, and agreed to continue their efforts to engage North Korea, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The State Department said the two discussed recent developments in Pyongyang. Mr Blinken also confirmed US support for inter-Korean dialogue and engagement.

Last week, diplomats from Washington and Seoul met to discuss the resumption of talks with North Korea, with humanitarian assistance part of the agenda as well.

South Korea's Unification Ministry confirmed that the two sides had discussed providing humanitarian assistance to improve inter-Korean relations and revive US-North Korea talks, and said they had looked at areas where the two Koreas could cooperate independently.

The ministry is reportedly reviewing ways to provide around 10 billion won (S$11.8 million) to private aid organisations for cooperative humanitarian projects in the North.

Seoul is holding out hope that humanitarian support may bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, considering the chronic food shortages in the North due to the protracted Covid-19 crisis and typhoon damage from last year.

This year, the food situation is expected to worsen amid severe weather conditions. North Korean state media reported on Thursday that thousands of homes had been destroyed last week and some 5,000 people evacuated due to heavy rain and flooding.

Observers say the dire situation might prompt Pyongyang to accept Seoul's humanitarian assistance but that connecting the aid to nuclear talks could be tough. North Korea insists it won't restart talks unless the US withdraws its hostile policy, an apparent reference to sanctions.

Another major challenge appears to be the US-South Korea military exercises, which Pyongyang has frequently denounced, calling them a rehearsal for an invasion.

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