SOUTH KOREA. Seoul: Tens of thousands of North Korean’s as well as citizens of South Korea, Japan, and China may be exposed to radioactive contamination from an underground nuclear test site, says a report published by a Seoul-based human rights group on Tuesday.
The U.S. and South Korean governments claim that between 2006 and 2017, North Korea conducted six covert nuclear weapons tests at the Punggye-ri location in the hilly North Hamgyong Province.
The Transitional Justice Working Group’s evaluation indicates that radioactive contamination may have spread across eight surrounding cities and counties, where more than a million North Koreans live and where groundwater is used for drinking and other daily activities.
Additionally, it said that nearby South Korea, China, and Japan could be in danger due partly to agricultural and fisheries items smuggled from the North.
The group, which was formed in 2014, collaborated with nuclear and medical experts and defectors, used open-source intelligence, and relied on publicly available government and U.N. reports for the study, which was supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit organisation funded by the U.S. Congress.
Hubert Young-hwan Lee, the group’s leader and a co-author, said, “This report is significant in showing that North Korea’s nuclear tests could threaten the right to life and health of not only the North Korean people, but also of those in South Korea and other neighbouring countries.”
In 2015, imported hedgehog mushrooms that were mislabeled as Chinese goods but were actually from North Korea were found to contain nine times the allowable quantity of radioactive cesium isotopes as detected by South Korea’s food safety office.
Following the North’s earlier nuclear tests, China and Japan have increased radiation monitoring and expressed concerns about possible exposure, but they have not been completely transparent about information regarding contaminated food.
Some international specialists have expressed concerns about the potential health dangers of drinking tainted water, but North Korea has dismissed these worries, claiming—without providing any supporting data—that no hazardous chemicals leaked after previous nuclear tests.
When North Korea invited international journalists to see the tunnels at the nuclear test site being destroyed in 2018, it took away their radiation detectors.
Due to thawing relations between the two Koreas, Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which oversees inter-Korean affairs, discontinued radiation testing for defectors in 2018.
Nonetheless, forty defections from the areas close to Punggye-ri were tested for radiation in 2017 and 2018, and at least nine of them had abnormalities. But, according to the government, a direct connection to the nuclear site could not be made.
Since 2006, more than 880 North Koreans have reportedly escaped from those areas, the report stated.
The rights group called for the tests to resume and for a global investigation into the radiation threats to the areas near Punggye-ri.
If any defectors disclose health issues and ask for assistance about radiation exposure, according to the Unification Ministry, testing may be resumed.
Seoul and Washington have suggested that Pyongyang may be getting ready for its sixth nuclear test.
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