A human rights group with headquarters in Seoul said in a report on Tuesday that groundwater from an underground nuclear test site could expose tens of thousands of North Koreans, people in South Korea, Japan, and China, to radioactive materials.
According to the governments of the United States and South Korea, North Korea secretly carried out six nuclear weapons tests at the Punggye-ri site in the mountainous North Hamgyong Province from 2006 to 2017.
According to the Transitional Justice Working Group's study, radioactive materials could have spread to eight cities and counties near the site, where groundwater is used in everyday life and drinking, and where more than a million North Koreans live.
It also stated that agricultural and fishing products smuggled from the North might put neighboring South Korea, China, and Japan in danger.
The study, which was supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit corporation funded by the U.S. Congress, made use of open source intelligence, publicly available government and United Nations reports, and collaboration with nuclear and medical experts as well as defectors.
Hubert Young-hwan Lee, the head of the group and a co-author, stated, "This report is significant in showing that North Korea's nuclear tests could threaten the right to life and health of not only the North Korean people, but also of those in South Korea and other neighboring countries."
Reuters made no phone calls to the diplomatic mission of North Korea to the United Nations in New York.
In 2015, the food safety agency in South Korea found nine times more radioactive caesium isotopes in imported hedgehog mushrooms that were actually from North Korea but were sold as Chinese produce.
Following the North's previous nuclear tests, China and Japan have increased radiation monitoring and expressed concern about possible exposure, but they did not openly disclose information about contaminated food.
Numerous outside experts have expressed concern regarding the potential health risks posed by contaminated water; however, North Korea has refuted these concerns by asserting, without providing evidence, that there were no leaks of hazardous materials following previous nuclear tests.
In 2018, North Korea confiscated the radiation detectors of foreign journalists who were invited to the nuclear test site to witness the destruction of some tunnels.
Seoul's Unification Service, which handles between Korean issues, quit testing deserters for radiation openness starting around 2018 in the midst of a defrost in cross-line ties.
However, at least nine of the 40 defectors from the Punggye-ri region who underwent radiation testing in 2017 and 2018 displayed abnormalities. However, the ministry stated that it was unable to establish a direct connection to the nuclear site.
According to the report, more than 880 North Koreans have escaped from those regions since 2006.
The rights group called for testing to be resumed and an international investigation into the radiation risks to Punggye-ri communities.
If any defectors report health issues and request assistance regarding radiation exposure, the Unification Ministry stated that it will consider restarting testing.
Washington and Seoul have said that Pyongyang might be getting ready for a seventh nuclear test.
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