North Korea’s nuclear test site puts hundreds of thousands of North Korean residents and people in South Korea, Japan, and China at risk of exposure to radioactive elements through groundwater contamination, according to a South Korean human rights organization.
In a recent report (pdf), the Transitional Justice Working Group said that North Korean residents living in eight cities and counties near the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site could be exposed to radioactive materials spread through groundwater.
More than a million North Koreans are living in the cities and counties where groundwater is used for daily activities, according to the report.
“North Korea’s 2008 census results show that nearly one out of every six households (15.5 percent) in North Hamgyong province, which includes Kilju County, uses groundwater, waterhole, public tap, spring, etc. as drinking water,” it says.
The report states that populations in neighboring countries, including South Korea, China, and Japan, are also exposed to radioactive risk due to agricultural and marine products smuggled from North Korea.
“If the radioactive materials disseminate through water, it can also affect the agricultural products from the Kilju plain and the marine products from nearby seas,” the Seoul-based rights group said.
They urged South Korea, Japan, and China to investigate the contamination risks of North Korean agricultural and seafood products, given that the area around the nuclear testing site is a food-producing region with a network of streams that lead to the sea.
The Chinese government warned of a possible radioactive leak after North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test in 2017, but North Korean agricultural and marine products continued to be smuggled into China.
In 2015, South Korea’s authorities detected high levels of radioactive cesium in dried hedgehog mushrooms imported from North Korea under the pretext of Chinese products.
Japan has banned all imports from North Korea but the country is still at risk of radioactive exposure due to the smuggling of North Korean pine mushrooms disguised as Chinese products, the report states.
North Korea has repeatedly insisted that there are no radioactive material leaks or negative impact from its nuclear facility, but the regime failed to offer any scientific evidence.
In 2018, North Korea invited foreign journalists to witness the dismantling of some tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site but confiscated the journalists’ radiation detectors.
North Korea demolished the Punggye-ri site in May 2018 as a sign of its commitment to end nuclear testing. But South Korean and American intelligence reported spotting construction work at the site in recent years.
The group also stated that South Korean records show that nearly 900 people from the region around the Punggye-ri site have escaped to South Korea since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.
They said resuming radiation testing for the North Korean escapees was crucial considering the lack of access to North Korea’s nuclear facility.
“North Korean escapees who display symptoms of radiation exposure must given accurate information and appropriate medical treatment,” said Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal expert with Transitional Justice Working Group.
Possible 7th Nuclear Test
North Korea conducted six nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017. Observers have said that North Korea may be making preparations at the Punggye-ri site to conduct its seventh nuclear test.
Analysts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said in a 2022 report that construction work had occurred at the Punggye-ri site, citing satellite images captured on March. 4, 2022, by the commercial satellite firm Maxar.
Jeffrey Lewis, co-author of the report, speculated that the images could signal that North Korea intends to restore the test site and begin nuclear explosive testing, though this could take months or years to complete.
He added that North Korea could also resume nuclear testing at another place.
“How long it would take North Korea to resume explosive testing at the site depends on the extent of the damage to the tunnels themselves, something we do not know with confidence,” Lewis said in the report.
North Korea set a new record last year in weapons demonstrations, including the launch of over 70 ballistic missiles, some of which had the capacity to reach the U.S. mainland.
The United States has been urging for a return to the diplomatic approach to resolve the tensions through dialogue, a call North Korea has ignored due to what it says are the United States and its allies’ “hostile policies.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.