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N. Korean defectors express concerns about 'ghost disease' back home

Female North Korean defectors point to Kilju on a map, where they were born and raised, in Seoul, on Dec. 11, 2017. (Mainichi)

SEOUL -- A mysterious "ghost disease" that has affected current and former residents close to the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site in North Korea is causing concern.

Among those affected is a man in his 40s, originally from a hamlet about 20 kilometers away from the Punggye-ri site in Kilju, North Hamyong Province. Having been troubled by continual headaches and nausea, the man went for an examination where he was informed that he has chromosomal abnormalities. He was also told that his condition might have been caused by his exposure to radiation due to the nuclear tests, which deeply shocked him.

The man is not alone. For several years now, many residents in the area have been feeling unwell, without knowing the cause. Lacking sufficient knowledge about radiation, the locals have been referring to the illness as a "ghost disease." Even today, many local residents are being kept in the dark about the radiation, while continuing to live in the vicinity of the nuclear test site. "I'm worried about the people in Kilju," he says, concerned about the future of his home town.

Back home, the man used to work in an agricultural job. He left North Korea in 2012 after the second nuclear test, and fled to South Korea. He continued to feel unwell after crossing the border, and upon undergoing testing at the Korea Institute of Radiological and Medical Sciences -- after taking part in a survey conducted by the SAND research laboratory -- it was confirmed that he had chromosomal abnormalities which typically develop after exposure to radiation. His symptoms have still not improved and he says that he wants to get treatment.

There are other people too, who have fled from Kilju to South Korea, yet still feel unwell. For example, a woman in her 50s, who fled from North Korea after a nuclear test in 2013, has been struggling with headaches for years. She still needs sleeping pills in order to sleep.

"When I was in North Korea, I had no knowledge about radiation, and could not make proper judgments about my poor health," the woman says, explaining that she first learned about the dangers of radiation after moving to South Korea. She is furious with the North Korean authorities, saying that, "They went ahead with nuclear testing without providing any information to local residents."

According to another woman in her 40s, also from Kilju, people have been banned from entering the area around the test site for dozens of years, arousing suspicions among local residents that the area was a "spy training school." Apparently, it was only recently that the residents realized, through word of mouth, that the area is a nuclear test site.

There have also been reports of health problems inside the test area. A woman in her 50s, who lived in Punggye-ri for about 20 years, and who left North Korea around 2010, was married to an engineering official who worked at the test site. The husband, who worked there for almost 20 years, struggled with sore skin problems and all his teeth fell out. Later, he could no longer get up and reportedly died in his 50s, sometime in the latter half of the 2000s.

The husband rarely talked about the nuclear development program with his family at home. However, around the start of the millennium, he apparently said, "I'm making them right now. The North Korean government is lying," in response to a Korean Central Television report denying suspicions that the country was developing nuclear weapons. The widow added that the man used to work in fear of radiation exposure.

Is the safety of residents near the nuclear test site assured? The woman in her 50s, says, "There was a shaking sensation, like a wave," as she refers to a nuclear test that took place there in 2013.

Meanwhile, the woman in her 40s was informed by her relatives back home after the sixth nuclear test in September 2017 that, "In Sindong-ri, south of Punggye-ri, there was a massive shake, causing fragile houses to collapse. Residents there have resorted to living in tents."

With information being so tightly controlled in North Korea, there are few details coming through about what is really going on. The defectors from north of the border continue to feel frustrated at the lack of information on damage caused by nuclear tests.

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