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Some NK defectors from areas near nuke test site show signs of radiation exposure

Some North Korean defectors, who had lived in areas near the North's nuclear test site, show signs of suspected radiation exposure in the latest medical checkups, but it is hard to confirm that the nuclear tests affected them, the unification ministry said Wednesday.

Since October, the ministry has conducted nuclear radiation leak tests and health checkups on 30 refugees who previously lived in Kilju County, where North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear site is located. The North has conducted all of its six nuclear tests at the site located in the country's northeastern province.

Seoul selected the defectors who expressed hope to undergo the tests among 114 refugees who came from the county after North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006. All of the examinees came to the South before the North's fourth nuke test in January 2016.

The ministry said that chromosome abnormality analysis examinations showed that four defectors may have been exposed to radiation, but it cannot be ruled out that other factors, such as age and smoking could have affected the result.

Satellite imagery shows North Korea`s nuclear test site in a photo released by 38 North. (Yonhap)
Satellite imagery shows North Korea`s nuclear test site in a photo released by 38 North. (Yonhap)

Among them, two cases showed no statistical meaning. For one refugee, an impact of an old age, smoking and uses of computed tomography for medical purposes cannot be excluded.

For the remaining person, a shortage of information stands in the way in gauging whether signs of radiation leaks are related to nuclear detonations.

"The possibility of radiation exposure can be suspected, but it has not been verified whether nuclear tests affected the person as there is a lack of information assessing living environments in North Korea," a ministry official said.

The government also said that there were no cases of meaningful results in checking possible radioactive contamination.

The official said that four of the 114 defectors from Kilju County had lived close to the Punggye-ri nuclear site, but he declined to identify how many examinees in the latest checkups came from the location.

Experts expressed concerns that the series of nuclear tests may have caused radioactive substances to leak into nearby areas, possibly putting residents' health at risk. Exposure to radiation could raise the risk of developing leukemia and other types of cancer.

The ministry admitted that the latest medical tests have a limitation, given the small sampling and a lack of information. Also a long time has passed since the examinees were possibly exposed to radiation.

The government said that it plans to advise North Korean defectors to receive heath checkups at regular intervals. It will also carry out further radiation tests on more refugees. (Yonhap)