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North Korean escapees tell how nuclear tests ruined their health, hometown

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A North Korean escapee speaks about her experience of living near the Punggye-ri nuclear test site during an event in Seoul, Wednesday. Yonhap
A North Korean escapee speaks about her experience of living near the Punggye-ri nuclear test site during an event in Seoul, Wednesday. Yonhap

Residents kept in dark about facility and devastating physical effects

By Jung Min-ho

Lee Young-ran, a North Korean escapee, had been completely unaware of the nuclear test facility near her hometown in Kilju, North Hamgyong Province, until the regime conducted its third nuclear weapons test there in 2013.

When Lee finally realized what was happening less than 30 kilometers from where she lived, she had no idea about the potentially devastating health consequences of such experiments.

"After the news, many people celebrated it, with some dancing at the 'jangmadang' (local market) … I had not known about the effects of nuclear tests on health until I came to South Korea," Lee said during Wednesday's event held in Seoul for the 20th North Korea Freedom Week that is being held from Sunday to Saturday.

Now she blames radioactive contamination in groundwater from the Punggye-ri nuclear test site for the death of her son and many other young people in her village.

North Korea conducted six underground nuclear tests at Punggye-ri between 2006 and 2017. ?The regime claims that all the tests were carried out safely and no harmful materials were released. But the testimonies of three former Kilju residents suggest otherwise.

According to Kim Soon-bok, who lived in the county before defecting to South Korea in 2011, the number of young patients showing symptoms of tuberculosis, arthritis or dermatitis had already started to visibly increase before the third test.

"People started to call it 'ghost disease,'" she said. "Many old people as well as children suffered from arthritis."

Their testimonies came as the Ministry of Unification has been conducting radiation exposure tests on 89 defectors who hailed from areas adjacent to the test site. The government and human rights groups hope that the results of the investigation will help establish a link between the nuclear tests and their medical symptoms as well as the extent of the damage in the North.

The ministry is expected to announce its findings by the end of this year.

According to Transitional Justice Working Group, a rights group that has been studying the issue, eight cities and counties in three provinces fall within the suspected influence of the irradiated water system. This means the tests might have affected more than 1 million people.

North Korea's nuclear tests have also ravaged the environment, according to Nam Kyung-hoon, another speaker at the event.

"There used to be many snakes, pine mushrooms and fish in the region," he said. "At some point, it became difficult to see them."

The defectors said no one talked about the possible link between their health problems and the nuclear facility out of fear of persecution. Lee Young-ran said her ill son was not permitted to leave the area for medical treatment in a big city even if he offered money.

After North Korea's sixth nuclear test in 2017, experts have warned that another detonation of a nuclear device at Punggye-ri could destabilize the mountain and result in a massive leak of radioactive materials.

North Korea's human rights and development of nuclear weapons are closely related issues, said Lee Shin-wha, ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights.

She said, in cooperation with the unification ministry, she would look more into human rights abuses connected to the regime's nuclear program.

Jung Min-ho


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