North Korea's nuclear tests and their results have been of great interest to us, but the way the lead-up to these two tests has been kept a secret in such a small country has been mostly overlooked. And there has been absolutely no information regarding human rights abuses or radioactive contamination in the area.
North Korea's recent nuclear test, which followed the first one in 2006, is a disaster in itself. A nuclear test in a place like the Korean Peninsula, which does not have the deserts or wastelands and is densely populated, can cause serious damage like radioactive leaks. For its first test, which was on a relatively small scale, North Korea cordoned off the area and stopped trains from coming near for three months before the test. For the recent one, however, there were no such actions, and residents of the area went about their daily lives during the test period.
How were even the locals kept in the dark? The terrain around Mt. Mantap in Kilju, North Hamgyong Province, where the second nuclear test took place, rises to 2,000 m above sea level and is largely virgin forest, like at Mt. Baekdu. Building a large underground nuclear test facility in such a forest would require enormous amounts of manpower and investment.
But it has been virtually impossible to find any North Korean citizens who said they were involved in constructing the nuclear testing facilities. The 1994 testimony of Ahn Myeong-cheol, who served as a guard at a camp for political prisoners in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, provides the only exception. Ahn said that from the early 1990s, young political prisoners from camps in Hoeryong, Jongsong, and Hwasong were taken to an underground construction site at Mt. Mantap and that he had always been curious about what the purpose was.
Mt. Mantap was a source of fear among the political prisoners. Once taken there, no one came back alive. Located just north of Mt. Mantap is the 16th political prisoners' camp of Hwasong, notorious even in North Korea. Only the top class of political prisoners and their families are held here. According to rumor, Kim Chang-bok, a former chief of the People's Armed Forces, and other top officials of the Workers' Party met their end in Hwasong.
That the underground test site and the political prison camp are adjacent may be coincidental. But North Korean defectors are convinced that the underground nuclear test facilities were built using political prisoners. It is not a secret that North Korea has been employing political prisoners for dangerous construction work.
Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the Workers' Party, testified that in the mid 1990s he witnessed the following event: Upon learning from the secretary of military supplies that dogs were to be used in the testing of newly developed weapons, Kim Jong-il ordered him to use humans; he would arrange for the use of political prisoners.
North Korean dissidents can expect to be treated worse than dogs by Kim Jong-il. The least popular major among the sciences in North Korea is said to be nuclear physics. Those who choose to major in the field have no choice but to move to Bungang District in Yongbyon for a life of confinement. Due to unprofessional management and lack of technology, residents there are often exposed to radioactive contamination and as a result suffer lingering illnesses, making the town a frightening place for scientists.
On completion of the first nuclear test and in preparation for the second, there would have been people sent to the test site, which was contaminated with radioactive material, and the choice would have been obvious: political prisoners. The truth will come to light when the Kim Jong-il regime collapses, but there is the possibility of horrible disasters happening in the test site in Kilju, even as we speak.
By Kang Chol-hwan from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk