North Korean Defectors Say Radiation Is Leaking From Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

North Korea’s infamous nuclear test site, a facility in Punggye-ri in Kilju County, has long been reported to maintain the standards one might expect for a pariah government low on everything but zeal and weaponry. Outsiders can only get a limited picture of the country, let alone the test site, thanks to its isolation from the rest of the world. But concerns have included tunnel collapses at the facility and the possibility Mount Mantap, where it is located, could implode under stress from repeated nuclear tests and release large amounts of radiation.

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Per NBC News, some defectors say that radiation emanating from the Punggye-ri test site could be the cause of “ghost disease” ravaging the area, causing sicknesses like leukemia and birth deformities. Some 30 people who lived in the region are being tested by the South Korean government for signs of radiation poisoning, but so far authorities haven’t publicly released any information indicating the claims are true.

“We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly,” defector Lee Jeong Hwa, who fled North Korea in 2013, told NBC News. “Now we know it was the radiation.”

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Punggye-ri. Photo: AP
Punggye-ri. Photo: AP

As NBC noted, North Korea has only been testing nuclear weapons since 2006, when the country successfully detonated a bomb that registered 4.2 magnitude on the Richter scale. Tales of “trout dying in the mountain streams and the area’s prized pine mushrooms disappearing” began long before then, some as early as the 1980s, suggesting other military activities could be responsible for contaminating the county with some form of toxin.

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies scientist Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress told NBC that neighboring governments maintain equipment to detect the release of radiation, and that nothing particularly abnormal has shown up. He said that one incident in which authorities detected a small amount of xenon gas, a radionuclide, five days after the alleged test of a hydrogen bomb in September was “very, very unlikely” to have arisen from a detonation or leak from Punggye-ri; Dalnoki-Veress also ruled out groundwater contamination from the testing, saying it could have leaked via steam vents.

Previous analysis by AccuWeather has concluded North Korean nuclear tests tend to be held when wind conditions are light, which could keep radioactive material from being dispersed outside its borders. At other times, regional newspapers have reported accounts of soldiers being treated for exposure following detonations. Chinese nuclear expert Wei Shijie told the Telegraph some kind of accident was probably “inevitable,” and “It is just a matter of time to detect it, because there are cracks on mountains where radioactive substances will leak.”

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[NBC News]

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DISCUSSION

While I don’t doubt that the area definitely isn’t going to be pristine in from a standpoint of radionuclide contamination, I seriously doubt that they’re seeing levels that would cause mushrooms to disappear and trout to die off in streams per NBC. With Chernobyl we actually see flora and fauna thriving in the exclusion zone, especially aquatic and mycological life. This was the case even shortly after the disaster there which definitely released a whole hell of a lot more fallout than the tests being conducted by the DPRK. As to the “ghost disease” my guess is that it has to do more with the abysmal food and healthcare shortages that result in even the military coming down with parasitic infections and infectious diseases that are easily prevented or cured in other societies. Traditionally the military in the DPRK has enjoyed a higher standard of living than the working class, but the continued food shortages and sanctions mean that even they aren’t protected from hunger and disease anymore. The recent high-risk defection at the DMZ should make that clear enough.

“We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly,” defector Lee Jeong Hwa, who fled North Korea in 2013, told NBC News. “Now we know it was the radiation.”

Chances are, there might be some increased risk of leukemia or thyroid cancer from the nuclear testing in the region to the peasant class in the area, but my money is on plain old-fashioned mal-nutrition for the rest of it. Turns out they probably were/are dying because they are poor and eat badly. Scurvy, rickets, pellagra, kwashiorkor, cachexia, and marasmus are known to be rampant in the population over there even when aid is flowing.

The very fact that we haven’t picked up that much in the way of decay products over the borders points to a lack of large-scale fallout.