It’s been more than two months since Typhoon Lionrock dumped nearly eight inches of rain on North Korea in three days, triggering a catastrophic flood along the border with China that killed at least 138 people and left another 400 missing. And now, with sub-zero winter temperatures looming, the situation is perhaps even more dire than in the flood’s immediate aftermath.
VICE News obtained exclusive satellite images that show the extent of the devastation in North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province, where swathes of farmland and entire neighborhoods were wrecked by the floodwaters. The disaster destroyed about 18,600 homes and left an estimated 70,000 people homeless, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross. Another 600,000 people in the area lost access to clean water and basic services, according to the United Nations.
The lack of housing, unsanitary conditions, and a potential food shortage caused by the destruction of farmland threatens to compound a crisis that was already grim after the Tumen River spilled over its banks in late August, according to North Korea experts and Red Cross spokesperson Patrick Fuller, who spoke with VICE News after returning from the flood zone on Saturday.
Fuller said he visited several small villages in North Hamgyong, where the overflowing river combined with heavy runoff from the surrounding hillsides and “effectively sent a wall of water down the valley, which took out everything in its path.” Fuller called the pace of reconstruction in the area “phenomenal,” but said he saw many families occupying the hollowed-out shells of buildings.
“It’s uncanny,” Fuller said. “The front walls have just been taken off, and people are still living in the remains of their homes.”
The satellite photos obtained by VICE News from the Center for Strategic and International Studies show the cities of Musan and Hoeryong, located in the far northeast of the country along the border with China’s Jilin Province. The images were taken on September 15, two weeks after the flood. Compared with photos of the same cities from March and August, it’s clear that the urban areas along the Tumen River were completely inundated with mud and debris. The adjacent farmland, much of which was nearly ready for the fall harvest, can be seen turning from verdant green to pale brown, the crops ruined by the floodwaters.
The United Nations reports that the flood destroyed more than 27,000 hectares of arable land, an area about the size of Orlando, Florida. The affected area includes both farmland and the backyard gardens that families use to sustain themselves in a communist system where the government food distribution program does not provide enough rations to meet their needs.
The water situation in North Hamgyong is equally troubling. The flood knocked out many pumping stations and displaced people relying on shallow wells and other makeshift sources for drinking water, creating an elevated risk for cholera, typhoid, and other water-borne illnesses. In September, UNICEF recorded a four-fold increase over the previous month in the number children under five suffering from diarrhea at local clinics.
“There certainly aren’t a sufficient number of toilets to go around,” Fuller said. “There’s open defecation. There’s a very clear risk of contamination of the water supply.”
In state media, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has touted the “great achievement” by the country’s military in responding to the flood, saying the soldiers have waged an “intense battle of construction, day and night.” But there’s been no mention of Kim visiting the flood-stricken areas, and experts who study the reclusive nation say his absence is conspicuous.
Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, DC, said the flood aftermath has received little international media attention relative to other events in North Korea. He said state propaganda often shows Kim visiting factories and farms for “spot inspections,” but “when something really bad happens like this, he’s nowhere to be found.”
Cha said the current Kim regime is even more secretive than the ones that preceded it, and suggested the North Korean government could be attempting to conceal the extent of the disaster. “It’s like the Hermit Kingdom on steroids,” he said. “The regime doesn’t want to publicize anything that looks like weakness.”
Fuller maintained that the North Korean response has been “really quite impressive,” and said the government plans to rebuild 20,000 housing units. Those projects are supposedly slated for completion by the end of the month, but thousands of people are still living in temporary shelters in an area where temperatures will soon plummet well below freezing.
The Red Cross is providing supplies such as roofing and plumbing materials to help with the rebuilding job, but the organization has met only 25 percent of its target fundraising goal of $15.5 million for the relief effort. Fuller said money donated to the Red Cross for the relief effort is controlled by the organization — not North Korean officials. But Cha pointed out that the regime’s history of misappropriating foreign aid has made the public wary of contributing.
“There’s a lot of donor fatigue out there when it comes to North Korea,” Cha said. “It’s been decades of them screwing around with the international community every time they try to come help. People are just sick of it.”
Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, which assists refugees from the country, said his organization has been receiving requests for aid from flood victims. “We’ve already been able to help bring some to safety,” he said. Park noted that refugees from the affected areas have claimed the number of lives lost in the floods was underreported, and that others have said they received minimal government assistance. In one case, a group said the only help provided to them by Pyongyang was “just a small blanket and some fish.”
The perilous situation on the border has raised concerns about a spillover of displaced North Koreans into China. Towns on the Chinese side of the river emerged largely unscathed from the flood, in part because the government prepared by evacuating residents, erecting sandbag walls, and deploying the army to coordinate the local response, according to Adam Cathcart, a specialist in contemporary Chinese history at the University of Leeds.
Cathcart said deforestation and aging infrastructure exacerbated the flood damage in North Korea, and that while China is contributing to the relief effort, Beijing is extremely wary of displaced residents crossing the border to seek relief.
“They don’t want the country to collapse and they don’t want instability on the border, which includes tens of thousands of people who are basically homeless on the frontier,” Cathcart said. “China is keen to keep the chaos on the North Korean side of the border.”
North Koreans are nothing if not resilient, however, and Fuller reported that even the elderly are participating in the rebuilding effort in hopes of finishing the construction of permanent shelters before the depths of winter. He described meeting one 70-something couple in North Hamgyong that would “go off every day to basically make bricks down by the riverbank and carry them to the building site.”
Still, he cautioned that “all of these people who have lost their homes lost everything,” and said there’s a huge need for basic necessities like fuel, blankets, and food.
“There’s definitely a sense of urgency,” Fuller said. “Everything hinges around how people are able to fare through the winter months.”