Seoul: 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 significantly increased the number of missile tests it conducted in 2022, firing more than in any previous year. The country is reportedly said to have conducted six tests of nuclear weapons at the Punggye-ri site in the mountainous North Hamgyong Province between 2006 and 2017.
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 lives including drinking. It also said that neighbouring South Korea, China and Japan might be at risk due partly to agricultural and fisheries products smuggled from the North.
“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,” said Hubert Young-hwan Lee, the group’s chief and a co-author.
North Korea’s nuclear test site, which has been called the “Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site” or “Kilju Nuclear Test Site”, is located on Mt. Mantap in Punggyeri, Kilju County, North Hamgyong Province. North Korea conducted six nuclear tests here from 2006 to 2017. The 1st and 2nd nuclear tests were conducted during Kim Jong-il’s rule while the 3rd to 6th nuclear tests were conducted during Kim Jong-un’s rule after Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011. The most powerful nuclear test was the 6th nuclear test in September 2017.
Concerns have also been raised about possible leakage and dissemination of radioactive materials. These concerns have been further heightened by several natural earthquakes and surface deformation that were confirmed after the 6th nuclear test. Meanwhile, North Korea has repeatedly insisted that no radioactive materials have leaked. For instance, immediately after the 5th nuclear test in 2016, North Korea claimed in Korean Central Television (KCTV) that there was no leakage of radioactive material or negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment.
Despite the risk of radioactive contamination through water, agricultural and marine products from the areas around Punggye-ri are consumed mainly by local people while the local specialties like pine mushrooms are distributed to other regions and overseas as a highly profitable and secret way to earn foreign currency for the North Korean government, the rights group said.
After reluctantly initiating radiation exposure tests, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification watered down the test results revealing abnormalities in 9 out of 40 North Korean escapees from the areas near the Punggye-ri nuclear test site (22.5 percent) in 2017 and 2018 and ceased the tests from 2019; testing all 160 escapees who had lived in Kilju or all 881 escapees who had lived in the areas near the Punggye-ri nuclear test site since North Korea’s 1st nuclear test in 2006 can be done with a budget of about 250 million won (211,000 USD) or 1.4 billion won (1,164,000 USD) respectively, it added.
Seoul and Washington have said Pyongyang could be preparing for a seventh nuclear test.