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The president of SAND, Choi Kyung Hui, who is also a defector but not from Kilju, suggested military activity at Punggye-ri in the years leading up to the tests could explain contamination in the area.
But Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, has doubts that radiation damaged the environment and residents’ health.
He said that if any radioactive material had leaked, even from a
reported tunnel collapse this month following the sixth test, powerful sensors in the region that “sniff” the atmosphere would have detected it. The same goes for previous tests, he said.
Days after the sixth test, the South Korean government announced it had detected
trace amounts of radioactive xenon, though it never said conclusively where it came from.
Ferenc says it’s “very, very unlikely” that it came from the Punggye-ri site. He’s also skeptical of groundwater contamination. Testing near water-saturated rock, he says, could build up steam that vents contaminants into the air. That, he says, is in no one’s interest.
Both Lee and Rhee keep in touch with their families when they can, using cellphones smuggled into North Korea from China.
Rhee says her family is sick, with headaches and vomiting, but no medicine helps. She’s surprised that in her new home, even the rights of animals are protected. But back in North Korea, she says, the health of her people is ignored.