North Korean defectors have complained that radiation from nuclear testing in rural North Korea has led to birth deformations, cancer and even death.
Lee Jeong Hwa, a North Korean defector, said in an interview with NBC News, “So many people died we began calling it ‘ghost disease.’” Lee fled Kilju County, which is nearby Punggye-ri, a nuclear testing site.
“We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly,” Lee said. “Now we know it was the radiation.”
Before her escape in 2010, Lee lived near the sites of two test detonations.
According to South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, other defectors have made claims about health effects of nuclear tests. Rhee Yeong Sil, who fled from an area near the Punggye-ri test site, described the birth defects of a neighbor’s infant.
“We couldn’t determine the gender of the baby because it didn’t have any genitals,” Rhee said. “In North Korea, deformed babies are usually killed. So the parents killed the baby.”
What do the experts say?
A lack of data and the North Korean government’s inflexible secrecy have made it difficult to verify the claims. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification tested 30 of the defectors, including Lee, who tested negative for radiation.
Suh Kune-yull, a professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University, said that experts need more than defectors’ accounts to confirm the claims.
“I don’t think they’re lying,” Kune-yull told NBC News. “We have to take their word, but I don’t have much reliable information.”
Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, agreed.
What are living conditions like in North Korea?
While reports of the “ghost disease” remain unsubstantiated, the dismal living conditions in North Korea are indisputable.
According to Reuters, when South Korean doctors tested a recent defected soldier, they found dozens of intestinal parasites, one of which measured 10 inches. The soldier, who drove a van to the South Korean checkpoint, then ran across the barrier amid gunfire, is recovering from injuries incurred during his escape.
Rampant malnutrition and periodic plagues have afflicted the Hermit Kingdom, according to Life Inside North Korea, a report by the U.S. Department of the State. For years, the North Korean government has required farmers to fertilize with human excrement, which they call “night soil.” The measure is the result of the country’s dwindling livestock.
In November, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo published a report detailing contamination caused by nuclear testing, noting that North Korean officials conduct experiments without warning locals.
According to the CIA World Factbook, North Korea ranks 157th in worldwide life expectancy, an estimated 70 years. South Korea ranks 11th.
North Korea made headlines for the Nov. 28 launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which, it claimed, is capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.