Karipbek Kuyukov was severely disfigured as a result of radioactive fallout from a nearby nuclear weapons testing site in Kazakhstan ― he was born without arms ― but that did not stop him from pursuing his dreams.
He is now an artist, painting artworks with his mouth and feet, a key figure in the nation’s anti-proliferation efforts, leading an international movement against testing.
Kuyukov was born in the late 1960s in the village of Yegyndybulak, a poor rural area on the Central Asian steppe about 100 kilometers from the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Test Site.
It was the height of the Cold War, and as part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was ground zero for hundreds of nuclear weapons tests.
Radioactive fallout from decades of testing at the Semipalatinsk site has left a legacy of health problems for some 200,000 residents near the area, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
The scientific organization linked higher rates of different types of cancer to the effects of radiation exposure, including thyroid abnormalities and birth defects like the one suffered by Kuyukov.
Immediately after declaring its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan became a leader against nuclear weapons and testing when the country took the rare step of abandoning its massive arsenal of warheads, the fourth largest in the world at the time, and closing the site down.
For Kazakhs, national independence meant finally saying no to nukes.
Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to South Korea Dulat Bakishev has made increasing awareness of the health risks posed by nuclear testing a major priority.
He and staff at the Kazakh Embassy observed a minute of silence at 11:05 a.m. on Thursday as part of its commemoration of the “International Day Against Nuclear Tests.”
Ambassador Bakishev is also planning a discussion session on the sixth floor of the Graduate School Building at Hanyang University at 2 p.m. on Sept. 6 and a photo exhibition about Kazakhstan’s campaign on the dangers of nuclear testing.
|Kazakh Ambassador to South Korea Dulat Bakishev gestures during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Itaewon on Wednesday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)|
“The 29th of August is a significant date for Kazakhstan, not only for the government but, above all, for the people. From 1949 to Aug. 29, 1991, the Semipalatinsk Test Site had been a major testing area of the Soviet-era nuclear program,” Bakishev said in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Itaewon on the eve of the international day against nuclear testing.
“We experienced more than 450 nuclear blasts at the Semipalatinsk Test Site. We had a huge arsenal of ballistic nuclear missiles, actually the fourth-largest arsenal in the world. As a result, people know the costs of developing nuclear weapons and nuclear testing. That is why the Kazakh leadership and the Kazakh people supported abandoning (the country’s) nuclear weapons program,” he said.
Since Kazakhstan dismantled its nuclear weapons program, the Central Asian nation has tried to persuade the world to do the same, and with some success.
The United Nations General Assembly voted to mark Aug. 29 as the International Day Against Nuclear Tests in 2009 on account of Kazakhstan’s efforts. Then, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev initiated the ATOM Project last year on Aug. 29.
The ATOM Project is being led by Kuyukov, officially the group’s honorary ambassador of the ATOM Project. The group seeks to unify public opinion against testing and get nations to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
During the Cold War, the world saw more than 2,000 nuclear tests, an average of 50 tests a year for 40 years. As East-West tensions subsided and the Cold War wound down, so, too, did the tests.
France, China, India and Pakistan conducted a handful of tests per year through the 1990s.
But Bakishev cautioned against complacency.
Since the test ban treaty opened for signing in 1996, only two ― France in 1998 and Russia in 2000 ― of the nine nuclear weapons states signed and ratified the CTBT.
The United States signed the treaty in 1996, which it helped draft, but the U.S. Congress failed to ratify it. South Korea, which does not possess nuclear weapons, signed the test ban treaty in 1996 and ratified it in 1999.
“A majority of countries do not test nuclear weapons, but we know that tests still take place from time to time on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
The ambassador offered the example of his country for North Korea to follow by abandoning its nuclear program and instead pursuing economic development.
He said Kazakhstan drew on U.S. assistance to dispense with its nuclear stockpile, earning widespread plaudits of the international community. Kazakhstan has received about $160 billion in investment from the U.S. since 1992.
President Park Geun-hye urged to North Korea to follow the Kazakh example in April during a meeting with eight ambassadors of Asian countries, including Bakishev.
Bakishev said it is important for the international community to appreciate the human cost of nuclear testing.
Soviet authorities never evacuated the thousands of villagers, people like Kuyukov’s mother and father, who did not understand the risks of radioactive fallout.
Kuyukov’s parents even watched mushroom clouds billow into the atmosphere and marveled at the purple and orange hues of a prismatic sky, according to accounts described on the ATOM Project’s website. Kuyukov recalled atomic blasts at the site just 100 kilometers away rattling dishes and shaking the walls of his bedroom.
The ambassador said everyone should learn from Kuyukov’s activism as an example of how a single individual can overcome formidable obstacles to make a positive difference in the world.
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com