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North Korean miners’ families suffer cancers, birth defects from uranium exposure

North Korea - Kim Il-Sung square. (Roman Harak/Flickr)
August 25, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Miners and their families living near a uranium mine in North Korea are suffering from a range of illnesses and birth defects blamed on exposure to radiation, with government authorities rotating workers every few years and locking up whistleblowers in mental wards, sources in the country say.

Workers at the Walbisan mine in South Pyongan province’s Tongam village near Sunchun city are forced by mine managers to work without protective gear, a source who regularly travels from South Pyongan to Sinuijju city on business told RFA’s Korean Service.

“And local residents are forced to eat radioactive food and drink radioactive water,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“In Tongam village, the miners and their families suffer from incurable diseases or various types of cancer. In particular, many people die of liver cancer,” the source said.

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Central government authorities have been encouraging Walbisan miners to dig out ever-larger quantities of uranium ore this year by promising their families extra rations of food, “and the ore from the mine is then carried somewhere in a covered cargo truck,” the source said.

“Its destination is unknown because it is kept secret,” he said.

Miners at Walbisan are now terrified at being struck by sudden mysterious illnesses, with those afflicted often dying within a few months, and others who later marry after working in the mines suffering from sexual dysfunction.

“Sometimes a miner’s wife will give birth to a deformed baby for unknown reasons,” the source said, adding, “Miners who are worried have been calling on the mine management committee to resign, but officials at the mine just call them mentally ill and lock them up at a mental hospital in [South Pyongan’s] Yangdok [county].”

Former soldiers drafted to work

Speaking to RFA in Dandong, China, a second source from South Pyongan said that the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party now replaces workers at the Walbisan mine with discharged soldiers every three years.

“This is because the symptoms of incurable diseases are appearing during this same time among the miners who are exposed to radiation,” the source said, also speaking on condition he not be named.

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Tongam village is well supplied with water, but that water comes from a source running through the area of the uranium mine, “so the residents and their children can’t avoid drinking radioactive water,” he said.

“Authorities say there is no problem there at all, even though children in the mining town show signs of health problems such as bleeding from their nose for no apparent reason.”

Despite the clear evidence of illnesses among miners and their families in Tongam, government authorities have never investigated the causes of the harm or offered compensation for their suffering, RFA’s source said.

“Instead, they arrest residents who want to leave the mine or who talk about radioactive contamination,” he said.

Reports of cancer, infertility, and birth defects in the mining area of Tongam village are consistent with medical understandings that these things result from exposure to radiation, Kim Ik-jung—a former professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University and member of South Korea’s Nuclear Safety and Security Commission—told RFA.

“In particular, children in the area are vulnerable to relatively significant effects from radiation, so thorough water management should be carried out,” he said.

“Working without protective equipment in uranium mines goes against common sense,” he said, adding, “Protecting mine workers in the area is urgent, as they can inhale dust from the mine area and be exposed to radiation through the respiratory system.”

“The authorities should conduct epidemiological surveys as soon as possible to prove how North Korean residents in this area are falling ill,” he said.