Former North Korean residents who managed to make the treacherous journey into South Korea to escape the despotic Kim Jong Un regime are now telling stories about a mysterious “ghost disease” outbreak that is actually due to radiation from nearby nuclear test sites.
“So many people died we began calling it ‘ghost disease,’” defector Lee Jeong Hwa told NBC News. “We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly. Now we know it was the radiation.”
Lee fled North Korea in 2010. She lived in Kilju County, where North Korean nuclear testing site Punggye-ri is situated. Former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il detonated two nuclear bombs at the site in the last seven years she lived there; since his death, successor Kim Jong Un has tested four more, including a supposed hydrogen bomb in September.
While other defectors are convinced that the radiation – which causes a long-term risk of cancer in low doses and can have a slew of adverse health effects in higher doses – is to blame for their families’ myriad illnesses, experts believe that there is not yet enough evidence to back up their claims.
“I don’t’ think they’re lying,” Suh Kune-yull, professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University, told the outlet. “We have to take their word, but I don’t have much reliable information.”
That is because it is difficult to definitively link radiation to the various cancers that have befallen residents near the nuclear test site while ruling out other factors. Lee and 29 other Kilju defectors were tested for radiation contamination and her test, at least, came back clean.
Last week, North Korea launched a new ballistic missile that American officials worried could reach as far as the East Coast. It was the first launch in two months.