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Seoul offers radiation tests to N Korea defectors as group flags nuclear risks

By Kelly Ng and Jean Mackenzie, BBC News, 24 Feb 23

South Korea will offer radiation testing to 881 North Korean defectors after concerns were raised about their exposure to the North’s nuclear tests.

It comes after a research report warned that residents around Punggye-ri, the main nuclear testing site, could be exposed to radioactive leaks in water.

The Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) estimates that up to half a million residents are at risk.

It also potentially affects people in China, South Korea and Japan.

The group – which was established in Seoul in 2014 by activists and researchers from South Korea, North Korea, US, UK and Canada – analysed publicly available data and open-source intelligence for its latest report.

North Korea last tested a nuclear bomb in 2017 – the most powerful of six tests conducted at Punggye-ri.

It said the tests were conducted safely, but scientists have long raised fears that radioactive material might have escaped into the surrounding soil and groundwater.

North Korean defectors, who once lived near the site, have previously reported seeing strange illnesses in their communities, but scientists have not been able to establish a link.

Authorities in Seoul are now inviting all North Koreans, who escaped from nearby towns near the site, to be tested for signs of radiation.

Nuclear experts the BBC spoke to largely agree with the possibility of nuclear contamination laid out in TJWG’s report but say its extent will be hard to determine.

Nuclear radiation can damage living cells partially or completely, sometimes resulting in cancer. As with most toxins, the risks associated with radioactive materials depend on the amount of exposure.

The Ministry of Unification, an executive department in South Korea promoting Korean reunification, stopped testing defectors for radiation exposure in 2019.

Nine of the 40 defectors tested in 2017 and 2018 showed “worrying levels” of genetic abnormalities, the group said in its report. While the TJWG did not directly attribute these to radiation exposure, it noted higher radiation doses for those who showed more abnormalities.

In particular, the TJWG flagged the leakage of radioactive materials into groundwater as a particular concern, given people’s growing tendency to consume groundwater.

North Korea’s 2008 census data shows that a sixth of households in the northernmost province of North Hamgyong, where Punggye-ri is located, use groundwater as drinking and agricultural water.

This proportion is likely to have gone up due to a chronic shortage of electricity across the country. Electricity is supplied only on a part-time basis even in the capital Pyongyang, which is always prioritised in resource allocation…………………………………………………………..

The group has urged South Korean and Chinese authorities to disclose results of past tests, for radiation exposure. It is also calling for an international inquiry into the radiation risks for communities around Punggye-ri.


February 24, 2023 - Posted by | North Korea, radiation

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