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Defector worries about radiation poisoning from blown up N. Korean nuke site

In this Sept. 3, 2017 file photo, people in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward watch a TV news report on a North Korean nuclear test. Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site is marked with a yellow dot near the upper right of the image. (Mainichi)

SEOUL -- As North Korea went ahead on May 24 with its demolition of its nuclear test site in Punggye-ri in the country's northeast as part of the stated effort toward denuclearization, North Korean defector Kim Pyong Gang, who is from that remote village, has a particular concern: The demolition work would cover up everything that happened to local residents, including exposure to radiation and the extraordinary hard work they were forced to do in digging shafts for nuclear tests.

Kim also expressed her worries in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun about the possibility that the groundwater in the area would be contaminated with radiation from the demolition blasts, thus increasing the threat to the health of people living in the area.

Kim, a novelist, is in her 50s and lived in Punggye-ri from around 1990 through around 2010, when she defected to South Korea. She had married an engineer at the test site.

The mountain area had forests where matsutake mushrooms, a local delicacy, grew. The development of the test site began in the late 1970s and local residents were forced to move out one after another while soldiers and inmates at labor camps were deployed to dig up underground shafts.

According to Kim, when she was in Punggye-ri, some 30 families were living near Chaedok Station, about three to four hours walk from the test site. "They didn't know much about what was going on, guessing that some kind of work was underway at a missile base," she said.

North Korea is blowing up some portions of the underground shafts, but Kim thinks local residents may not understand what actually happened as they are used to the sounds of the explosives utilized in the construction of underground shafts decades ago.

Kim heard about Pyongyang's plans to decommission the site in news reports on May 12 when she was in her office. She felt like the North Korean authorities are "trying to cover up how many nukes they have by driving out site personnel and pulling out military troops."

"I should be happy about the news of the site's closure," Kim continued, "but I am worried about the workers who dug the underground shafts for more than 30 years and local residents who don't know if they were exposed to radiation."

Her husband died of liver cancer in the late 2000s after developing skin sores. He was not told about the possibility of radiation exposure and the only treatment he received was applying disinfectant to the affected areas.

Meanwhile, international reporters who went to Punggye-ri to cover the decommissioning had their dosimeters confiscated at Wonsan airport by North Korean officials, and have no way to measure radiation levels at the site. Kim hopes that at least one of the reporters managed to smuggle a device to check radiation there.

Kim is further concerned that underground water will become contaminated by radiation leaked from the demolition blast, and local residents will drink it without knowing the contamination.

"People should have thought about the danger of radiation exposure affecting local residents, site officials and foreign reporters from this political show of blowing up Punggye-ri," Kim said.

(Japanese original by Akiko Horiyama, Seoul Bureau)

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