North Korea nuclear tests put tens of thousands in China, Japan at risk of radiation: The Tribune India

Seoul, February 21

Tens of thousands of North Koreans and people in South Korea, Japan and China could be exposed to radioactive materials spread through groundwater from an underground nuclear test site, a Seoul-based human rights group said in a report on Tuesday.

North Korea secretly conducted six nuclear weapons tests at the Punggye-ri site in mountainous North Hamgyong province between 2006 and 2017, according to US and South Korean officials.

The study by the Transitional Justice Working Group said radioactive materials could have spread across eight cities and counties near the site, where more than 1 million North Koreans live, and where groundwater is used in everyday life, including drinking.

It also said neighboring South Korea, China and Japan could be at risk, in part because of agricultural and fishery products smuggled from the North.

The group, formed in 2014, worked with nuclear and medical experts and defectors and used open source intelligence and publicly available government and UN reports for the study, which was supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit corporation funded by the US Congress.

“This report is important to show that North Korea’s nuclear tests could threaten the right to life and health not only of the North Korean people, but also of those in South Korea and other neighboring countries,” said Hubert Young-hwan Lee, the group’s head and a co-author.

Telephone calls from Reuters to North Korea’s diplomatic delegation to the UN in New York went unanswered.

In 2015, South Korea’s food safety agency detected nine times the standard level of radioactive cesium isotopes in imported porcupine mushrooms that had been sold as Chinese products even though their actual origin was North Korea.

China and Japan have increased radiation monitoring and expressed concern about potential exposure after the North’s previous nuclear tests, but did not openly provide information about contaminated food.

Many outside experts have raised concerns about potential health risks from contaminated water, but North Korea dismissed such concerns, saying there were no leaks of harmful material after previous nuclear tests, without providing any evidence.

When North Korea invited foreign journalists to witness the destruction of some tunnels at the nuclear test site in 2018, it confiscated their radiation detectors.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, has stopped testing defectors for radiation exposure since 2018, amid a thaw in cross-border ties.

But of 40 defectors from the regions near Punggye-ri who were tested for radiation in 2017 and 2018, at least nine showed abnormalities. However, the ministry said it could not establish a direct link with the nuclear plant.

More than 880 North Koreans have escaped from these regions since 2006, the report said.

The rights group called for the resumption of testing and an international investigation into the radiation risk to communities around Punggye-ri.

The Ministry of Unity did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Seoul and Washington have said Pyongyang may be preparing for a seventh nuclear test.


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