North Korea's Red Cross deploys thousands of volunteers to help cope with coronavirus, floods

·2 min read

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea's Red Cross has deployed 43,000 volunteers to help communities prevent outbreaks of the coronavirus and provide flood assistance, an official with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said on Monday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an emergency last month and imposed a lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing coronavirus symptoms.

Heavy rain and flooding in recent days have also sparked concern about crop damage and food supplies in the isolated country.

North Korea's national Red Cross Society is the only organisation with access to all nine provinces, and more than 43,000 volunteers have been working alongside health teams on COVID-19 prevention efforts as well as helping flood-related work, said IFRC Antony Balmain.

"Hundreds of homes have been damaged and large areas of rice fields have been submerged due to heavy rain and some flash flooding," Balmain said.

Precipitation levels in the North this month were higher than 2007 when the country suffered its worst floods, a spokesman at Seoul's Unification Ministry overseeing inter-Korean affairs said.

In Kaesong, which was grappling with both the lockdown and floods, Red Cross volunteers were providing 2,100 families most at risk with relief items including tarpaulins, kitchen sets, quilts, hygiene kits and water containers, Balmain said.

"Families are being supported with psychological first aid and awareness activities to maintain hygiene and stay healthy," he added.

Kim has also sent special aid packages to Kaesong, and state media reported on Monday that grain supplies from Pyongyang had arrived in another flood-ravaged county he visited last week.

North Korea has not confirmed any coronavirus cases but has enforced strict quarantine measures. South Korea has said there is no evidence the returning defector was infected.

The North Korean Red Cross last month received kits designed to run up to 10,000 coronavirus tests, alongside infrared thermometers, surgical masks, gowns and protective gear.

In South Korea, at least 32 people have died after 49 days of monsoon rains, the country's longest since 1987, caused flooding, landslides and evacuations.

(This story corrects headline and paragraphs 1,7 and 11, and replaces paragraph 4, to account for the fact that the volunteers are from North Korea's Red Cross Society, not the IFRC.)

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Stephen Coates and Kevin Liffey)