Workers at nuclear sites at risk of disease and death

In this Thursday, May 24, 2018 photo, tunnel 2 at North Korea’s nuclear test site is blown up in Punggye-ri, North Korea. Image: Korea Press Pool

Following a publicized incident in May where a North Korean journalist refused to drink stream water near the closed Punggye-ri nuclear site in Kilju, North Hamgyong Province, some defectors in South Korea have claimed that local residents have suffered from significant health problems and some have even died.

“We have obtained testimony from those who have suffered health problems at the Punggye-ri nuclear site, the Yongbyon nuclear site in North Pyongan Province, and the uranium mine in Pyongsan County, North Hwanghae Province,” according a July 18 press release from the North Korean Human Rights Monitoring Center, which is part of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB).

“The problems range from muscle wastage and chronic headaches to pediatric lymphoma, birth deformities, and even death.”

One defector from Kimjongsuk County in Ryanggang Province told the center, “A neighbor of mine went to work at the nuclear site in Yongbyon after college [likely Yongbyon College of Physics] but their health deteriorated. I’m not sure what was wrong, but he later died.”

The center noted that the North Korean authorities mobilize political prisoners to construct the nuclear sites and do not inform them of the dangers involved.

“The authorities seem to be concealing information about the dangers of radiation and even the fact that those mobilized are working at a nuclear site,” the report stated.

“The authorities are violating the workers’ right to know the dangers radiation can cause to the body, which is the most common problem they are exposed to at these sites.”

The center noted that the parents of children who had been diagnosed with lymphoma and leukemia did not make the connection with these diseases and their exposure to radiation. “North Koreans don’t have a lot of information about the dangers of radiation so they have very little understanding of what’s happening.”

“North Koreans don’t connect being sick with exposure to radiation,” a defector from Hyesan City told the center. “People don’t think there is a connection between the water being bad in Kilju County and the nuclear site.”  

The defector said that all the laborers working at the nuclear site are political prisoners and that, “the digging and tunnel construction is done by them.”

The North Korean authorities also closely manage the soldiers and engineers mobilized to work at nuclear sites.

“Those working at nuclear sites are protected by the government,” said a defector from Chongjin in the report. “The state steps in to help or provide money when one of them gets sick, but they don’t live that long.”

Another defector from Pyongyang added, “I’ve heard people who have worked at the nuclear sites are given special treatment for the rest of their lives by the Party because of some changes in their health […] They are given white rice and presents at holidays from the Party.”

Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to