- Associated Press - Monday, August 13, 2012

UNGOK, North Korea — Tears rolled down Ri Hyang-ran’s cheeks Monday as she recalled her terror the night that floods engulfed her farming-and-mining hamlet northeast of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang.

As the rain pounded down, town officials went door to door hustling residents out of their homes.

Still in her pajamas, Ms. Ri said she only had time to grab two things: her portraits of North Korea’s late leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

Huddling with her neighbors in the mountains high above the village, she could see nothing in the darkness but the sheets of rain that pummeled Songchon county on the night of July 23.

“But I could hear the sound of walls collapsing, and it was terrifying,” she told the Associated Press, wiping her tears away with a towel.

When dawn broke, she discovered that her home for the past two decades was gone, swept away by the torrent of water that tore through this part of South Phyongan province.

The threat of floods is nothing new to the area, a valley where four rivers converge. But this year’s rains were the worst in recent memory, villagers said Monday, many standing on the rocky dirt where their homes once stood.

The floods not only killed at least 169 North Koreans nationwide and destroyed tens of thousands of homes, according to official accounts, but also left huge swaths of farmland submerged in water.

Across the county, corn, rice and soybean plants already damaged from a protracted drought in May and June lay withered and stunted just a month before harvesting season is set to begin.

Mountainous North Korea already struggles to feed its people. A U.N. report in June said some two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people are coping with food shortages, with hunger dire in some areas.

Emergency food aid shipments started last week, the World Food Program said.

The prospect of flooding strikes fear in North Koreans, who well remember when heavy rains in the mid-1990s triggered deadly landslides. An ensuing famine killed hundreds of thousands of people, a period North Koreans call “the Arduous March.”

Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father as leader of the secretive communist country in December, addressed land management in the first official treatise. He called for officials to shore up rivers and reforest mountains denuded of trees in decades past.

Along the rutted roads to Songchon county, soldiers and workers were carrying boulders to rebuild levees damaged by the floods and repair collapsed roadways that have left villages such as Ungok District cut off from the relief and repair work.

The Associated Press was among several foreign media organizations taken by North Korea’s Red Cross Society to the village on a requested reporting trip Monday. The journalists were not escorted by government minders.

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