Medical reports on recent North Korea defectors give clues to what’s really going on in the notoriously impenetrable Hermit Kingdom, and the results are troubling.
Four defectors hailing from a place near North Korea’s nuclear test site displayed symptoms that could be attributed to radiation exposure, a report commissioned by the South Korean government said Wednesday. Is North Korea accidentally nuking its own citizens during weapons tests? The scientists couldn’t say conclusively that the results were caused by detonations. In fact, the readout might have just been caused by old age or smoking, the experts said.
Separately, an unnamed South Korean intelligence officer told the country’s Channel A television that a North Korean soldier who defected this year is apparently immune to anthrax, a deadly animal disease that could be deployed as an agent of biological warfare.
“Anthrax antibodies have been found in the North Korean defector who has escaped this year,” the officer said. The report went on to cite a defense analyst named Shin Jong Woo saying that the anthrax vaccine may be given to specialists working on the North’s biological weapons program.
Of course, humans can also get sick with anthrax if they come in contact with infected barnyard animals, according to the CDC — a possibility that leaves intelligence analysts in the awkward position of needing to determine whether the defector was, in fact, a weapons specialist, or maybe just grew up on a farm.
“It’s important to recognize the limits of our own knowledge,” Thomas Karako, a weapons expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News. “But what we do know is that the horrors of North Korea are legion.”
Indeed, medical examinations of North Korean escapees have long shown the Hermit Kingdom to be rife with poverty and disease.
A soldier who bolted across the border to South Korea in November was later found to have massive, 10-inch-long white parasites in his bowels, which the surgeon who removed them described as “thick, big, long and very, very hard.”
A 2015 study of defectors found that 7 out of 17 subjects had parasites in their stool. One potential cause for that: North Korean farmers may be using human feces as crop fertilizer in a country with a leaky water system that’s sorely in need of maintenance.
In 2014, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un personally urged farmers to use human waste as fertilizer, according to a report from Reuters.
Parasites can be spread through contaminated water supplies in places with poorly functioning sewage treatment facilities or malfunctioning public utilities, according to David Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“Most countries don’t recommend that you use raw feces from humans as fertilizer,” Heymann told VICE News. “That’s not consistent with best practice.”
That same 2015 report looked at a total of 169 defectors who visited South Korean hospitals and found that 40 percent of them had some kind of secondary illness in addition to their main reason for a trip to the doctor. The most common was tuberculosis (14%).
About one in five had either hepatitis C or hepatitis B, which could indicate a lack of proper needle sterilization in the country’s hospitals, according to Heymann.
“Hepatitis B and C are usually transmitted by nonsterilized needles,” Heymann said. “So that might speak to inadequate sterilization.”
Of course, the medical readouts of North Korean citizens are just one way to catch a glimpse of what’s happening in North Korea.
Nuclear tests are pretty hard to hide. A massive blast on September 3, thought to have been a hydrogen bomb, set off small earthquakes that were recorded by seismologists.
The recent results showing North Koreans to have possibly been exposed to radiation dovetails with stories North Koreans who lived near the test site have told the media about friends and family members falling sick from mysterious illnesses.
“So many people died that we began calling it ‘ghost disease,’” a North Korean defector named Lee Jeong Hwa recently told NBC News. “We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly. Now we know it was the radiation.”