While the world focuses on North Korea's belligerent rhetoric and scrutinises signs that could indicate a nuclear test, a human catastrophe may be unfolding behind the closed borders of the secretive state. Monsoon rains lash Korea every summer, but this July the peninsula was swept by the worst floods recorded since 1973, when South Korea first started collecting data. The severe conditions were caused by typhoons coinciding with the monsoon. Sixty people were killed or disappeared in South Korea, and some Seoul neighbourhoods were flooded; the roofs of stalled buses became islands. Given the damage done to highly developed South Korea - the world's 10th largest economy - experts wonder how much worse the situation could be in the impoverished North. As a result, Seoul has reversed the decision it made, following Pyongyang's missile tests on July 5, to suspend aid to its neighbour, and announced the reinstatement of a US$230 million emergency package. However, because of the paucity of information from North Korea, a controversy has arisen over the exact number of victims claimed by the floods. 'There are no reliable figures,' said Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea who teaches at Seoul's Kookmin University. 'Charities exaggerate figures, as they need to raise money; North Korea tends to under-report the number of victims, but over-reports material damage, so it can squeeze more aid.' The communist nation admits to only 150 dead, but an influential Seoul-based charity says the flood has killed tens of thousands. Good Friends, a Seoul-based Buddhist charity which claims to have extensive contacts in and around North Korea, says the number of dead and missing is in the tens of thousands, with some 2.5 million - more than 10 per cent of the population - homeless. 'The figure we have is 54,700 dead and missing,' said Erica Kang, the charity's spokeswoman, adding that most of these were in the southern part of the country. 'There were massive landslides, and the town of Yangdok, east of Pyongyang - it is in a basin-like situation, surrounded by four hills - has been almost wiped out; it looks like a gravel yard. 'A landslide wiped out 18 units of five-storey apartment buildings, penetrating up to the third floor of the buildings. I have never heard of anything like it,' she said. North Korea is uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters. The fall of the Soviet Union - the erstwhile supplier of fuel to the communist state - caused an energy crisis in North Korea that continues to this day. With little fuel for heating, North Koreans strip their hillsides of trees for fuel during the country's harsh winters. Adding to the nation's woes, famines in the 1990s, which may have killed millions, led to starving citizens denuding the hillsides of edible plants. The resulting environmental degradation makes the mountainous country highly susceptible to flooding and landslides. Without vegetation, topsoil is easily washed down hillsides on to settlements and rice fields. Foreign reporters who visited North Korea last year were shocked when travelling in the countryside. Virtually all hillsides were bare of vegetation, and hardly any effort had been made to terrace them, which would help prevent landslides. North Korea itself admits that the damage has been serious. Although it originally rejected assistance from the South Korean Red Cross, it reversed itself in talks between South and North Korean officials last weekend. South Korean Red Cross officials visited Pyongyang last week to co-ordinate what would be needed. In a statement, the South's Ministry of Unification said it would be sending 100,000 tonnes of rice, 100,000 tonnes of cement, 100 trucks, 50 excavators and 60 shovel loaders, as well as 30,000 blankets and 10,000 emergency medical kits at the end of August. The package is worth US$230 million. Alluding to criticism that the move reverses Seoul's decision to suspend aid following the missile tests, South Korean Deputy Unification Minister Shin Eon-sang said: 'It is a separate case from annual aid to the North.' 'The Red Cross of North Korea told us that the number of casualties is 150,' said an official from the South's Ministry of Unification - '36,000 families have lost their homes, 400km of road were washed away and 80 bridges are down.' While it admits its own picture is incomplete, the ministry disputes Good Friends' data. 'One of our officials has said that their figures are incredible - the numbers are too high,' said the ministry official. Good Friends refuses to divulge the source of its data but its information has proved to be accurate in the past. It was the first body to quote a figure of 2 million dead in the North's famines of the 1990s. That figure is now widely accepted by a range of organisations and governments, including the US Congress. In June it released casualty figures of around 1,000 dead or seriously injured in a train accident at Mount Boraesan Station in North Korea in April. South Korean intelligence confirmed Good Friends' information four days later. Pyongyang welcomes aid from the South and China, but is suspicious of international aid agencies, notably the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), because of their insistence on monitoring aid deliveries. Last year, in a development that nearly led to the WFP departing the country, Pyongyang demanded the WFP restructure its programmes to avoid creating a culture of dependency. It cited its best harvest in a decade - a harvest which necessitated Pyongyang citizens being trucked into the countryside to help gather the grain. Even so, the country still faces a food shortfall, and any gains realised last year may well have been washed away in last month's floods. Seoul's assistance is desperately needed, as the worst could yet be to come. 'We estimate that 200,000 hectares of arable land has been lost in the grain basket of North Korea,' said Good Friends' Ms Kang. 'We are gravely concerned about this year's production.' The charity said public distribution of rice had already been halted in Pyongyang in April; flood damage will exacerbate existing shortfalls. Furthermore, many people, displaced by flooding, are camping out or sheltering in public buildings, where they are vulnerable to water-borne diseases. 'We are not sure if water is being taken care of,' added Ms Kang. 'And in some areas malaria is breaking out.'