At least four defectors from North Korea are showing signs of exposure to radiation, a trend that could be linked to the country’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons program.
The Korean Unification Ministry announced on Wednesday that medical examinations of four refugees from Kilju County in the country’s northeastern province found evidence that they had been subject to radiation exposure. The province is also where the Punggye-ri nuclear site is located, where all six of North Korea’s nuclear tests have been carried out.
Yet despite carrying out chromosome abnormality analysis examinations, the ministry could not confirm whether the radiation was caused by their proximity to nuclear activity due to a lack of information. Other factors such as age and smoking could also trigger similar signs of radiation exposure.
“The possibility of radiation exposure can be suspected, but it has not been verified whether nuclear tests affected the person as there is a lack of information assessing living environments in North Korea,” a ministry official said.
In a November interview with The Research Association of Vision of North Korea, former residents of Kilju County gave evidence of the effects of radiation, which included babies born with deformities, the drying up of underground wells, and the dying of 80 percent of trees and plants.
Experts also remain concerned over the wellbeing of local residents who, if exposed to radiation, face a heightened risk of deadly diseases such as leukemia.
Fears of environmental consequences were recently compounded by reports of a deadly tunnel collapse at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, reportedly causing as many as 200 fatalities. Commercial satellite images also provide evidence of landslides near the test site, increasing fears of further environmental consequences should further tests be carried out there. North Korea denied the reports, describing them as “misinformation” designed to slander the regime.
The rogue communist state last tested a hydrogen bomb in September, which experts claimed caused a 6.3 magnitude quake, raising fears of environmental consequences. The regime claimed the test was a “perfect success.”
The nuclear tests come at a time of escalating tensions across the Korean peninsula. Dictator Kim Jong-un continues to aggressively develop his nation’s nuclear program while threatening war against the United States.
The Korean Unification Ministry has since confirmed that it will run further tests on more defectors to determine the cause of any radiation exposure and offer medical care as necessary.