Radioactive decay from North Korean nuclear facility causes birth defects in Bungang

<Editor’s Note> There are many highly restricted areas in North Korea, including ‘Kwanliso (prison camps)’ where so-called political criminals are detained due to ideological problems and nuclear facilities like Punggye-ri and Yongbyon. It has been reported that not only freedom of movement is prohibited, but human rights abuses including secret executions occur in these restricted areas.

Nuclear facilities in Yongbyon County, South Pyongan Province, North Korea
Nuclear facilities in Yongbyon County, South Pyongan Province, North Korea. Image: Yonhap News Agency

Bungang district is located in Yongbyon County, South Pyongan Province. It is one of the areas where the US suspects that North Korea houses its secret third nuclear facilities, in addition to Yongbyon and Punggye-ri, which North Korea acknowledges. Daily NK has conducted an in-depth interview with a local source and learned about the reality of the Bungang district and the lives of local residents.

There was a report that the reason for the Second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi broke down because the US was aware of the existence of other nuclear facilities including the ones in Bungang district, in addition to Yongbyon and Punggye-ri. When President Trump mentioned the Bungang district as one of the additional nuclear facilities, whether highly-enriched uranium facilities (HEU) exist or not became a point of contention. The Ministry of Defense has dismissed its existence, saying, “Bungang is not a facility, but the name of a district in Yongbyon.”

However, due to the nature of uranium, which emits radiation in its natural state, uranium enrichment facilities are usually located near uranium mines. Therefore, it is difficult to rule out the possibility that uranium is being mined from a mining pit in neighboring Pakchon County and being refined and enriched in Bungang.

Bungang district is located northeast of the Yongbyon nuclear complex and construction began from the 1970s. It is an area known to house scientists, and retired soldiers say they were deployed there in groups to build nuclear facilities.

According to the source, there is a physics university in Bungang district and several state enterprises that refine uranium from the neighboring Pakchon mine.

Although Bungang district residents do not use the word “uranium”, they are aware that nuclear facilities exist within the district.

“The residents do not really talk about uranium but they do talk about nuclear facilities,” said the source. “There are so many babies with deformities now because of the radioactive materials coming out of the facilities.”

The following is a transcript of the interview.

Daily NK: The nuclear facilities must be carefully guarded. Who protects them?

Bungang resident: From the way they dress, I think they are from a special unit. They’re not from the police or People’s Liberation Army, they are from state security.

Also, I heard that there are soldiers who are stationed along the Bungang district’s fences and there is a separate military facility within the district itself as well.

Although it’s a restricted area and has several guard posts, surprisingly, security can be loose. For example, there’s a rumor among locals that you can get inside with a carton of cigarettes.

Daily NK: Why is the complex so heavily restricted?

Bungang resident: There’s a physics university and related research institutes. I think they are trying to hide the fact that only the smartest people can attend Bungang Physics University and whenever the smartest ones from each region suddenly disappear, people say that they must have gone to the university. I heard that Bungang Physics University courses used to be only two years long but they have become four years.

Daily NK: It looks like that they are trying to further develop their nuclear program.

Bungang resident: I don’t know the details but it looks like they are. I heard that those cadres, researchers and engineers who work in Bungang’s nuclear facilities live in separate modern housing within the district. Also, they continue to receive gifts from the Central Party. For example, they get honey, musk and male virility enhancers. In other words, the party makes sure that they are well taken care of so that they can focus on their work.

Daily NK: So do you think that there are nuclear facilities in Bungang?

Bungang resident: There are nuclear facilities in Bungang. I don’t know exactly how many are there but I heard that it’s not just one or two, there are many more.

Daily NK: Are residents aware of the existence of the nuclear facilities?

Bungang resident: Of course they are. People say that there are many babies born with deformities because of the nuclear facilities. Smarter party cadres try to leave Bungang because they know that the facilities are dangerous. They even try to pay bribes so that their children can get out.

Daily NK: You said that there are babies born with birth defects. Tell me more about that.

Bungang resident: In other districts it is very difficult to find people with cleft lip but here there are many individuals with crooked mouths, those lacking eyebrows, incidents of dwarfism, and those with six fingers. There are even children who just look like bare bones. Also, people in this area have a short life span. It’s said that they usually die when they reach 50 years of age. There are a lot of people without teeth and hair who are only in their 30s and 40s.

Daily NK: So this has all happened due to the nuclear facilities.

Bungang resident: In the Chongchon River, there are no fish at all, and even grass does not grow near it.

Daily NK: Is wastewater from the nuclear facilities released into the Chongchon River?

Bungang resident: That’s right. Chongchon River is a really long river, but as it gets closer to Yongbyon County, there are no fish or grass, eels or clams to be seen once the river goes down to Sinanju. Water from the Chengchon River never rots. If you put water from a river into a cup, after a while, it should go bad and start to smell, but the water from Chongchon River never smells bad even after a long period of time. People who live there know this very well. They do not even wash their clothes in the river. Bungang residents do drink the underground water, but they have no choice even though they know it’s bad for them.

Daily NK: Aren’t people working within the nuclear facilities at greater risk? Who works there?

Bungang resident: Political prisoners, for whom nobody cares about if they die, work in the mining pit and do dangerous work. Also, they are never allowed to come above the ground. Those prison guards also have a tough time as well. They have to live with the political prisoners and live just like them. I heard that the prison guards come out once in a while but they have to sign a confidentiality agreement to go outside and they are not even allowed to smoke cigarettes inside.

Daily NK: How many political prisoners work in there?

Bungang resident: I’m not sure exactly, but nobody even knows if they die while working there. I heard it from the prison guards that they don’t care about the numbers, so there must be many of them.

*Translated by Yongmin Lee