Defectors who lived near North Korea’s nuclear testing site say they believe they are suffering from exposure to radiation, and fear for the health of family members still living there.
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.”
As Lee rubs her sore right leg in the office of SAND, a nongovernmental organization in Seoul that advocates human rights in North Korea, she recounted how she was caught trying to flee the country in 2003. She eventually escaped in 2010.
During the last seven years Lee lived in the North, Kim Jong Il test-detonated two nuclear bombs near her home. Since Kim’s death in 2011, his son and heir, Kim Jong Un, has tested four more.
According to the World Health Organization, radiation can impair the functioning of tissues and organs, depending on the level of exposure. At lower doses, it says, there’s a long-term risk of cancer.