Just a few days after the Japanese media claimed a tunnel at North Korea's nuclear test site collapsed in September following Pyongyang's sixth atomic test and possibly killed more than 200 people, South Korean newspaper reported how the area surrounding the site is turning into a toxic “wasteland.”
Chosun Ilbo cited a group of 21 defectors from the hermit kingdom who used to live in Kilju County, where the Punggye-ri underground facility is located. The Research Association of Vision of North Korea interviewed the witnesses, who said nearly 80 percent of vegetation in the region has died from nuclear radiation, underground wells are running dry and babies are being born with defects.
“I heard from a relative in Kilju that deformed babies were born in hospitals there,” one defector said, according to the newspaper, while another claimed, “I spoke on the phone with family members I left behind there and they told me that all of the underground wells dried up after the sixth nuclear test.”
The former North Korean residents claimed trees began to “disappear” from the region shortly after the first nuclear test in 2006.
“If you plant trees in the mountains there, 80 percent of them die,” another defector explained. “You can blame it on poor planting, but the number of trees that die is higher than in other mountains.”
The residents of Kilju obtain their drinking water from Mt. Mantap in Punggye-ri — and they are worried about further contamination.
The defectors also claimed the authorities did not warn civilians about the detonations in advance or offered any protection afterwards. One of the defectors, who reportedly experienced two nuclear tests, said only military officials and their families receive a warning while the rest are left to fend for themselves.
“During the first nuclear test [October 2006] and second one [May 2009], only family members of soldiers were evacuated to underground shafts. Ordinary people were completely unaware of the tests,” the defector recalled. “I personally saw corpses floating down the river with their limbs severed.”
They also added the officials ordered locals to dig “deep holes for those tests.”
Since the most recent nuclear test, people who live in the region have reportedly been banned from making hospital appointments in Pyongyang, raising concerns about high mortality rates caused by the radiation.
Moreover, in order to keep the alleged condition in the county a secret, officials are detaining people who try to leave the area with samples of soil or other things.
“People who boarded trains to the border with samples of soil, water and leaves from Kilju County were arrested and sent to prison camps,” the defectors added.
Although experts have said a series of tremors and landslides near the nuclear test base probably mean the country's sixth and largest blast on Sept. 3 has destabilized the region, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his government have continued to deny the allegations, regardless of the fact these tests are bound to affect the health of his people.
Chosun Ilbo’s report came at a time when President Donald Trump is visiting South Korea as part of his first Asian tour.
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