A group of North Korean defectors are alleging that people who live near the country's nuclear test sites are suffering from a "ghost disease". According to an NBC News report, claims of various illnesses in adults and deformities in infants are being attributed to exposure to nuclear radiation.
Rhee Yeong Sil, a defector who lived near the Punggye-ri test site in Kilju County, said she was not aware that the North Korean government was testing nuclear devices until she escaped across the border. She did, however, witness the effects that radiation had on people in her neighbourhood.
Rhee believes that the dangerous emissions from the site were responsible for one of her neighbours giving birth to a baby with no genitals.
"We couldn't determine the gender of the baby because it didn't have any genitals," Rhee recalled. "In North Korea, deformed babies are usually killed. So the parents killed the baby."
Lee Jeong Hwa, another defector and former resident of Kilju County, said she, along with her family and neighbours were facing numerous health problems because of the radioactive material. The woman, who currently lives in South Korea, complained of constant body pain and weakness and said others in her hometown were diagnosed with leukaemia and other diseases.
"So many people died we began calling it 'ghost disease,'" she said. "We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly. Now we know it was the radiation."
The South Korean Ministry of Unification has tested 30 defectors from Kilju but has not released any conclusive report regarding radiation exposure. Lee, who was among the 30, said her tests came back negative.
Recent studies have confirmed that exposure to radiation can impair the functioning of tissues and organs and increase risks of dying from leukaemia.
"A lot of epidemiological or radiobiological studies have brought evidence that exposure to ionizing radiation can cause cancer and leukaemia," Dr Klervi Leraud of the Radiobiology and Epidemiology Department at Fontenay-aux-Roses in Cedex, France said of his long-term study of more than 300,000 workers in France, the US and the UK.
The World Health Organization also confirmed that lower doses of radiation could increase the long-term risk of cancer.
Since 2006, six nuclear tests have been conducted at Punggye-ri. The most recent one took place in September.
Despite the claims by the defectors, researchers are unable to confirm if nuclear radiation is responsible for the health problems since data is very difficult to come by.
"I don't think they're lying," Suh Kune-yull, a professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University (SNU), said of the defectors. "We have to take their word, but I don't have much reliable information."
"We have to take their word, but I don't have much reliable information."
However, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, is not convinced that radiation is responsible for the residents' health. He explained to NBC that if any radioactive material had leaked it would have been detected by powerful sensors in the region.