Japan: Siren sounds as North Korea fires missile overhead

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Hundreds of thousands of people in North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China are in danger of being contaminated by radioactive materials that could flow through groundwater, a Seoul-based human rights group has warned. Kim Jong-un’s scientists conducted six nuclear detonations at an atomic facility between 2006 and 2017 that could have spread radioactive materials by water within 24.8 miles, a report by the Transitional Justice Working Group says.

Out of 40 defectors from the region who were tested in 2017 and 2018, at least nine North Koreans had abnormalities brought out by radiation exposure. At the time, North Korean officials said it was impossible to establish a direct connection to Pyongyang’s nuclear activity and that other factors, such as age, smoking habits, or other types of chemical exposure, were also possible.

More than 880 North Koreans have escaped from those regions since 2006, the report said.

The South Korean organisation is now calling on North Koreans living and who previously lived close to the nuclear test site to get tested.

More than a million North Koreans are living in the cities and counties where groundwater is used for daily activities, according to the report.

“North Korea’s 2008 census results show that nearly one out of every six households (15.5 percent) in North Hamyong province, which includes Kilju County, uses groundwater, waterhole, public tap, spring, etc. as drinking water,” it wrote.

The Seoul-based rights group warned that “if the radioactive materials disseminate through water”, it can also “affect the agricultural products from the Kilju plain and the marine products from nearby seas.”

The human rights group’s “assumption” is that out of the 1 million people living in the province, up to 540,000 could be affected.

“Considering the number of deaths over the 17 years since the start of nuclear tests in 2006, the affected population may be higher,” the report says.

It also warns of contamination abroad caused by agricultural and marine items being smuggled from North Korea to South Korea, China and Japan, putting the populations at risk of radioactivity.

Hubert Younghwan Lee, the director of the group, said: “While there has been a tendency to discuss North Korea’s nuclear programme solely as a security issue … North Korea’s nuclear tests [also] threaten the right to life and the right to health of not only the North Korean people [but] also of those in South Korea and other neighbouring countries.”

The warning comes as North Korea is showing signs to be relaunching its nuclear weapons programme. Kim Jong-un’s regime fired two short-range ballistic missiles from its coast on Monday, two days after it test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

North Korea conducted six nuclear tests in October 2006, May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, September 2016 and September 2017.

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Fears are now growing among US, South Korean and Japanese officials that Kim Jong-un could be preparing to conduct a seventh nuclear test “any time” after detecting activity at the underground test site, which was reportedly demolished in 2018 to show its willingness to denuclearise.

Jeffrey Lewis, a co-author of the report, said: “How long it would take North Korea to resume explosive testing at the site depends on the extent of the damage to the tunnels themselves, something we do not know with confidence.”

North Korea, which has heightened tensions on the Korean peninsulas with its record-breaking missile tests, has threatened to turn the Pacific into a “firing range,” warning against joint military exercises between Seoul and Washington.

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