PYONGYANG (Reuters) - North Korea has responded to outside help after devastating floods with unusual openness, a top U.N. official in the country said, but added providing assistance to the reclusive state was still a massive challenge.
Jean-Pierre de Margerie said the floods, which left at least 600 dead, had also left hundreds of thousands homeless and destroyed farmland and infrastructure, a blow to a country that faces chronic food shortages.
"The level of damage to infrastructure, to communications, to crops, to farmland and to households, is considerable," said de Margerie, who is the acting U.N. coordinator in North Korea as well as the World Food Programme's country representative.
"The breakthrough that happened with the floods a few weeks ago is that the government has improved its level of cooperation by giving us unprecedented access to the field to conduct our assessments of the damage," he said.
Keen to project an image of strength and suspicious of outside intervention, North Korea rarely calls for foreign help.
De Margerie said its appeal for aid this August was its first call in 12 years, since flooding in the 1990s led to a famine that some estimate killed as many as 2 million people.
It was too early to say whether North Korea could be facing renewed famine, de Margerie said, but added that the food security situation in the country was already precarious.
"This year, following these floods, we know that it's farmland, it's harvest that will be affected and we're concerned that the food deficit might actually be larger in 2007 than it has been for many years."
Water-borne disease also had become a concern given the number of those left homeless and the degree of infrastructure damage, he said.
And the restrictions that North Korea has placed on international aid groups operating there make responding to the crisis all the more challenging.
"Our capacity is very limited, and when you have a shock like what happened a few weeks ago with the floods, that clearly stretches our capacity to respond to this emergency," said de Margerie.
"Working with the DPRK authorities is always very challenging," he added, referring to the formal name for North Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. But he said he was optimistic that the government's goodwill toward international flood relief efforts would continue.
North Korea, where citizens do not have access to the Internet and where the government strictly controls the media, showed pictures of flood damage on state television, including footage of streets in the capital Pyongyang underwater.
Its weekly English-language newspaper, the Pyongyang Times, carried a two-page spread about the floods, featuring pictures of citizens being mobilised to reinforce river banks and statistics on the extent of damage to fields and industry.
But de Margerie said that although North Korea had been open in its call for emergency relief, there was still the longer term project of recovery to grapple with.
"We're looking at the immediate needs for the next few months," he said.
"But when you have floods of this magnitude, it means you will have a very important phase of rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction afterwards."