healthHealth and Medicine

What's Causing The Mysterious "Ghost Disease" Near North Korea's Nuclear Test Site?


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Is it really down to radiation sickness, or something else? Attila Jandi/Shutterstock

There’s no doubt that parts of North Korea feature hellish humanitarian disasters. The Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site near Mount Mantap has made headlines several times in this regard in the last few months, with reports of deformed babies, corpses floating down rivers, and more being linked to the subterranean detonations.

Now, as reported by NBC News, North Korean defectors fleeing the area have spoken of something they’re colloquially referring to as a “ghost disease”. According to their accounts, leaking radiation is having a dreadful effect on their health, causing weakness, sores, and worse.


One middle-aged escapee explained that people were dying all around her back in Kilju County, which features the underground test site.

“We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly. Now we know it was the radiation,” defector Lee Jeong Hwa told the human rights activists based in Seoul.

Reports of sick and dying North Koreans have steadily emerged from those that used to live near Punggye-ri over the last few months. Although the nuclear tests occur deep below the surface, the increasingly weak geology there makes it a distinct possibility that some of the radiation is effusing up toward the surface.

Some have suspected that the site suffers from Tired Mountain Syndrome, wherein repeated massive explosions cause the surrounding rock to become increasingly permeable. This has been corroborated with the accounts of other defectors who have spoken of disappearing water within wells, a phenomenon that could be down to a lowering of the water table as the underlying geology collapses after each test.


However, at this stage, you can’t conclusively blame the awful health of the North Korean defectors on radiation. Without any researchers being allowed onto the site, it’s difficult to tell how much radioactive contamination at the surface there actually is.

Malnutrition – something that is rife in North Korea – poor sanitation, and hygiene, as well as waterborne diseases, could also be to blame. Unlike radioactive contamination, these are known to be prevalent throughout the country.

Incidentally, South Korean officials have tested Lee and 29 other defectors hailing from Kilju County for signs of radioactive contamination. So far, they’ve not found any.

This doesn’t mean that the defectors are fabricating these stories, though. It’s more likely that being aware of the underground nuclear tests, they associate the accompanying radiation with their poor health. Even with other factors taken into account, these colossal blasts are so frightening that they find it difficult to not make the association.


There’s no doubt that the living conditions in Kilju are unfathomably awful. Still, at this stage, the degree to which any radioactive contamination at the surface is occurring – if at all – remains uncertain.

[H/T: NBC News]


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