North Korea’s continued nuclear ambitions prompt fear worldwide, but much closer to home, the results have already been tragic. In October, a collapsed tunnel at the regime’s nuclear test site reportedly killed at least 200 workers, and following dramatic footage of a defecting soldier crossing the border to South Korea, other defectors are now speaking out about their experiences. Two of them spoke with NBC News with statements that can’t be pinned to conclusive results, but they’re nonetheless frightening accounts.
One woman, Lee Jeong Hwa, lived near the underground site where North Korea has test-detonated a total of six nuclear bombs (two of them while Kim Jong-il was in power). She defected in 2010, years before the reported hydrogen bomb was detonated there in September 2017. Lee fears for her family members who remain near the site and attributes her ailing health to radiation exposure:
Standing about 5 feet tall, Lee Jeong Hwa walks with a slight limp. Middle-aged with an ashen gray complexion and deep-set dark brown eyes, Lee says she’s in constant pain. But back home, things are much worse, she says.
“So many people died we began calling it ‘ghost disease,'” she said. “We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly. Now we know it was the radiation.”
Another woman who defected in 2013 recalls living near the test site, close to a neighbor who gave birth to a baby without genitals. Rhee Yeong Sil says that the “parents killed the baby” per the North Korean practice of generally doing so when babies are deformed. Rhee and Lee both say that their relatives continue to suffer near the test site, but there’s little hope on the horizon of helping them. One contributing factor, unfortunately, is that there simply isn’t enough data. A spokesperson from the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety who talked with NBC News states that it’s “assumed” that the test site produces “excessive” amounts of radiation, but it can’t be proven due to lack of access to the area. And blood tests on defectors have so far proven inconclusive on radiation levels.
Meanwhile, analysis continues into the long-range missile fired by North Korea after a two-month testing hiatus. U.S. officials stated on Saturday that the massive projectile likely crumbled upon reentry, which shows that the regime has much more fine-tuning to achieve before they can truly reach the U.S. mainland. However, it’s worth noting that while “problems with reentry” are evident, the regime is still making progress at an alarming rate.
On that note, CNN reports that U.S. stealth fighters entered the region this weekend, which prompts speculation that the Trump administration is moving toward war with North Korea.