Horrific tales are being shared by North Korean defectors who fled their homes near the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, with stories of sickened residents and wildlife, and even a deformed baby born without genitals and murdered soon after birth. Lee Jeong Hwa, who got out in 2010 from her home in Kilju County, tells NBC News that residents started talking of a "ghost disease" after people started perishing, and they're tying it all back to the regime's nuke tests. "We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly," she says. "Now we know it was the radiation." A World Health Organization fact sheet explains the havoc, based on exposure levels, that radiation can wreak on the body, causing such maladies as burns, hair loss, and skin conditions, with cancer also a possibility years after exposure.
A Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety rep tells NBC it's "assumed" that locals are being heavily exposed to radiation—but tests on Lee, one of 30 defectors being examined, have turned up no evidence of radiation contamination, and a Seoul National University professor says that even though he believes there's likely merit to the defectors' claims, scientists have a "total lack of data" to back them up. Another expert adds that "sniff" sensors in the region haven't picked up signs of radioactive matter after past tests—and some residents' tales of sickened flora and fauna go back decades, long before North Korea started testing nukes in 2006. Meanwhile, Gizmodo points out a Chinese nuclear expert told the Telegraph earlier this year a radiation leak at the test site is "inevitable," even if it hasn't yet happened, and that groundwater contamination may be the biggest concern. (Read more North Korea stories.)