North Korean political prisoners forced to work at nuke sites: escapee

It marks the first escapee testimony on political prisoners’ forced labor at nuclear sites, says Seoul think tank.
By RFA Staff
2024.03.06
North Korean political prisoners forced to work at nuke sites: escapee A North Korean nuclear plant is seen before demolishing a cooling tower (R) in Yongbyon, in this photo taken June 27, 2008 and released by Kyodo.
Kyodo/Reuters

A North Korean escapee’s recent account has shed light on Pyongyang’s enforcement of forced labor at nuclear sites.

The comments mark the first instance of an explicit testimony on a practice that puts political prisoners at risk of radiation exposure.

Describing the working conditions at the nuclear facilities as “prison-like,” a 40-year-old individual who escaped the North in 2019 said North Korea requires forced labor from its political prisoners at such sites.

Few ordinary people wish to work there for fear of radiation exposure despite a number of perks offered to workers, said the escapee, as cited by the Korea Institute for National Unification. 

For instance, the North Korean authorities reduced the mandatory military service from 10 years to five for those who work at the nuclear facilities, while offering benefits of college and the country’s sole ruling party membership, the escapee told the institute. 

But the woman, interviewed anonymously for security reasons, added she had heard that “those who serve [military service] there die in three years,” as a result of exposure to radioactive materials.

This is the first time a North Korean escapee has come forward with concrete testimony that political prisoners are forced to work at a nuclear facility, according to the institute. 

In response to the woman’s claim, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said it “needs to be further verified.”

“There is no information to date on the existence of political prison camps or forced labor at nuclear facilities,” said a ministry official.

The testimony came a week after the Korea Institute of Radiological Medical Sciences, or KIRAMS, released a report on its tests of 80 North Korean escapee who used to live near Punggye-ri where the North’s nuclear test site is located. 

The report found 15 out of 17 who were tested for chromosomal aberrations had been exposed to radiation back in the North before they escaped.

KIRAMS indicated that this exposure could be attributed to North Korea’s nuclear tests, although it also clarified that a direct causal relationship cannot be conclusively established.

“Significant additional research is needed to more scientifically assess the impact of North Korea’s nuclear tests on neighboring populations, including more testees and early testing,” said KIRAMS.

Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.

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