North Korea’s nuclear programme ‘could be radiating tens of thousands through groundwater’

South Korea, Japan, and China have been urged to conduct radiation exposure tests to hundreds of North Korean escapees or defectors who had lived near the regime’s nuclear research facility.

Tests conducted on 40 people in 2017 and 2018 found at least nine of them had abnormalities that could indicate high radiation exposure, but Seoul’s Unification Ministry said a conclusive link to Pyongyang’s nuclear activity could not be established and other factors were possible, such as age, smoking habits or other types of chemical exposure.

A damning report published on Tuesday by the Transitional Justice Working Group, a Seoul-based human rights organisation, said six nuclear detonations in the regime’s Punggye-ri facility could have spread radioactive materials by water within 24.8 miles.

Tens of thousands of people in North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China could be exposed to radioactive materials spread through groundwater, it said.

It comes amid signs that the secretive country is preparing to resume its nuclear weapons programme after the hiatus of six years.

North Korea conducted six nuclear tests in October 2006, May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, September 2016 and September 2017.

It has rejected safety concerns surrounding its nuclear tests, saying the testing environment each time was fully controlled and it detected no radioactive leaks.

The US, South Korean and Japanese leadership have raised growing fears that Pyongyang looks ready to conduct seventh nuclear test “any time” as they detected development at the underground test site which it had purportedly demolished in 2018 to show its willingness to denuclearise.

But when it invited international journalists to Punggye-ri in 2018 it confiscated their radiation detectors.

The area around the site is agricultural land with abundant rainfall and a network of streams that lead to the sea, raising the risk of contamination in neighbouring countries of China, Japan and South Korea, the TJWG said.

It urged the countries to investigate the contamination risks which could have spread through food, water or seafood products, as these are often smuggled into Seoul and Tokyo despite the ban.

South Korean records show nearly 900 people from the region around the Punggye-ri site have defected into the country following Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006.

“North Korea’s nuclear tests threaten the right to life and the right to health of not only the North Korean people, but also of those in South Korea and other neighboring countries,” said Lee Younghwan, the group’s executive director.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it is considering requests to resume tests.

In 2015, South Korea’s food safety agency detected nine times the standard level of radioactive cesium isotopes in North Korea-produced dried hedgehog mushrooms that were being sold as Chinese products.

North Korea which has stepped up tensions in the Korean peninsulas by its record-breaking spree of missile tests has threatened the US to turn the Pacific into a “firing range”, warning against Seoul-Washington joint military drills.

According to analysts, the delay in North’s seventh nuclear tests could be due to technical difficulties caused by food shortages in the reclusive nation or pressure from China against instability in the reason.

In the immediate aftermath of its 2017 nuclear detonation, a series of small earthquakes from the testing site sparked condemnation and fears of underground contamination of ground water.