North Korean defectors say people are dying from ‘Ghost Disease’ caused by radiation exposure

North Korean Defector

SEOUL, South Korea — Defectors who lived near North Korea’s nuclear testing site say they believe they are suffering from exposure to radiation and fear for the health of family members still living there.

Standing about 5 feet tall, Lee Jeong Hwa walks with a slight limp. Middle-aged with an ashen gray complexion and deep-set dark brown eyes, Lee says she’s in constant pain.

But back home, things are much worse, she says.

“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.”

As Lee rubs her sore right leg in the office of SAND, a nongovernmental organization in Seoul that advocates human rights in North Korea, she recounted how she was caught trying to flee the country in 2003.

She eventually escaped in 2010 from her home in Kilju County, home of North Korea’s nuclear testing site, Punggye-ri.

Image: South Korea Reacts To North's Latest Nuclear Test
A South Korean official points to a screen showing seismic waves from an artificial earthquake in Kilju, North Korea, on Sept. 3. They were triggered by North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images file

During the last seven years Lee lived in the North, the leader at the time, Kim Jong Il, test-detonated two nuclear bombs near her home. Since Kim’s death in 2011, his son and heir, Kim Jong Un, has tested four more. He claimed the one tested in September was a hydrogen bomb.

According to the World Health Organization, radiation can impair the functioning of tissues and organs, depending on the level of exposure. At lower doses, it says, there’s a long-term risk of cancer.

Lee and other defectors are adamant these tests have had a detrimental effect on their health. The scientific evidence and expert opinion, however, is not so conclusive.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has been testing Lee and 29 other defectors from Kilju for radiation contamination. Lee told NBC News that her test results have already come back — and they’re clean.

And aside from the testimony of Lee and others, it’s hard to verify radiation as the cause of the widespread illnesses, such as leukemia and other cancers, that defectors say have been ravaging Kilju.

Suh Kune-yull, a professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University (SNU), says the reality is that researchers are suffering from a “total lack of data.”

“I don’t think they’re lying,” Kune-yull says of the defectors. “We have to take their word, but I don’t have much reliable information.”

Image: Kimchaek in North Korea
A woman walks before houses in a village near Kimchaek on North Korea’s northeast coast. It is located about 22 miles south of Kilju. Ed Jones / AFP – Getty Images

A spokesman for the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety told NBC News it’s “assumed” that exposure to radioactive material from the underground test site is excessive, but it’s difficult to confirm.

Both Lee and Rhee Yeong Sil, another defector at the SAND office, say for years they had no idea North Korea was testing nuclear devices. They ignored the tremors and only discovered the truth after fleeing their homeland.

Rhee, who is in her 60s and defected in 2013, says that she lived just a few miles from the Punggye-ri test site, and that her neighbor gave birth to a deformed baby.

“We couldn’t determine the gender of the baby, because it didn’t have any genitals,” Rhee says. “In North Korea, deformed babies are usually killed. So the parents killed the baby.”

Some of Rhee and Lee’s claims of radiation exposure date to the 1990s and even the 1980s, raising questions about whether something other than a nuclear test could have contaminated the environment and made people sick.

While the country’s first nuclear test wasn’t until 2006, the defectors tell stories of trout dying in the mountain streams and the area’s prized pine mushrooms disappearing long before then.

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.

Image: Satellite Image of Kilju, North Korea
A satellite image showing Kilju, North Korea. DigitalGlobe / Getty Images file

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.

Trump: Screw the Dems

President Trump Saturday blamed Democrats for failing to act to strengthen gun restrictions under the Obama administration, accusing them of using the issue as a political talking point. “Just like they don’t want to solve the DACA problem, why didn’t ...
Read More

National Anthem removed from California High School’s rallies

SAN RAMON, Calif. – A leadership class at California High School in San Ramon made the decision to no longer include the national anthem as part of the school’s pep rallies, citing racial controversy at a school where vandals had ...
Read More

Dennis Prager: ‘My Opposition to Donald Trump Was Wrong,’ He Is a ‘Great President’

“My opposition to Donald Trump was wrong,” said Dennis Prager, describing Donald Trump as a “great president” whose political successes are connected to a disregard for the left-wing and partisan Democrat news media narratives. Prager’s comments came during Thursday’s episode ...
Read More
On this day in History

On this Day in History: Old West 1875 Pinkertons maim Frank and Jesse James’ mother

      Mistakenly believing Frank and Jesse James are hiding out at their family home, a gang of men–likely led by Pinkerton detectives–mount a raid that leaves the outlaws’ mother permanently maimed and their nine-year-old half-brother dead.The Chicago-based Pinkerton Detective Agency ...
Read More
Brigadier General Richard Montgomery

1776 First national memorial is ordered by Congress

(History Channel) On this day in 1776, the Continental Congress authorizes the first national Revolutionary War memorial in honor of Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, who had been killed during an assault on Quebec on December 31, 1775.Montgomery, along with Benedict ...
Read More
National Reciprocity

Mitch McConnell Ignores National Reciprocity for 46 Consecutive Weeks

It is January 24th, 2018, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has ignored national reciprocity for 46 consecutive weeks. Breitbart News reported that national reciprocity was introduced in the Senate on March 1, 2017, but McConnell has yet to ...
Read More
on this day

American Revolution 1781 Light Horse and Swamp Fox raid Georgetown, South Carolina

(History Channel) On this day in 1781, Patriot commanders Lieutenant Colonel Light Horse Henry Lee and Brigadier General Francis Swamp Fox Marion of the South Carolina militia combine forces and conduct a raid on Georgetown, South Carolina, which is defended ...
Read More
Walmart opiods disposal

Walmart Launches Groundbreaking Disposal Solution to Aid in Fight Against Opioid Abuse and Misuse

Retailer first national pharmacy chain to offer free opioid disposal solution at all pharmacy locations BENTONVILLE, Ark.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–In an effort to help curb abuse and misuse, Walmart is launching a first-of-its kind opioid disposal solution – available at no cost ...
Read More
trump reinstates the “conscience refusal” protections for doctors

Trump Is About to Protect Doctors Who Won’t Perform Abortions or Treat Transgender Patients

(Fortune) President Donald Trump’s administration is set to wade into its next health care policy controversy—new federal guidelines that would add protections for doctors and health care workers who have moral or religious objections to certain procedures, such as performing ...
Read More


Most Read Stories


What is going on in Michigan? We did some digging and found out this isn’t the first time

Officially, I cannot endorse fake news of any kind. We have attempted to, and are continuing to attempt to prove the validity of the story, which I personally believe was an explainable phenomenon resulting in […]


A view to a kill: Russia creates world’s most powerful ultra long-range rifle

Russia’s light arms industry presented its most innovative development in recent years, the SVLK-14S Sumrak, the world’s first sniper rifle that can hit a target four kilometers (2.4 miles) away. In the town of Tarusa, […]

Project Thor

Did the U.S. Just launch “Project Thor” as the secret ZUMA Payload that SpaceX just put into Orbit?

The 107-country Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967 prohibits nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons from being placed or used from Earth’s orbit. What they didn’t count on was the U.S. Air Force’s most simple weapon […]

Police State

With a Stroke of a Pen, PA Governor Wolf Limits Firearm Rights by Proclaiming State of Emergency

Today, Pennsylvania Governor Wolf issued a proclamation declaring Pennsylvania’s heroin and opioid epidemic a statewide disaster emergency, seemingly triggering the firearm prohibitions found in 18 Pa.C.S. § 6107 during declared emergencies. Specifically, Section 6107 provides: (a) General […]

Winter Gun

What Really Happens to Your Guns in Winter (it could get you killed)

Winter presents unique challenges for everyone and everything, especially when you’re experiencing a “bombogenesis”. So, obviously having a working firearm is crucial in any situation. Ask the Marines at the Chosin Reservoir as their guns […]