North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is using nuclear weapons development to maintain his firm grip on power, but a compilation of North Korean state media reports the Unification Ministry has gathered since June 2000, the reclusive leader has never visited the main Yongbyon nuclear complex.
Experts say this is unusual given that Kim has undertaken more than 100 of his so-called on-the-spot guidance tours this year alone, to anything from shoe factories to military units. One theory is that the site is simply too dangerous. Yongbyon "is such a 'sensitive' location that he may have made secret visits, but there is a good chance that he avoided visiting the site due to fears of radiation," an intelligence official said. Sensitive locations do not normally put Kim off. Some years ago he made two visits to a long-range missile base and a nuclear testing site in North Hamgyong Province.
At present, the Yongbyon nuclear complex contains a 5MW graphite-moderated reactor, plutonium extraction facilities, a nuclear fuel processing plant, a half-built 50 MW reactor, two unreported storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel, one storage facility that has been reported, and a light-water reactor that may or may not be completed by 2012.
The plutonium extraction facility is the main reason for the radioactive contamination. "Radioactive materials such as neptunium, americium and curium are released in the process of extracting plutonium by melting spent nuclear fuel rods with nitric acid," said Hwang Il-soon, a nuclear scientist at Seoul National University. "The problem is that these materials have half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years." That means the radioactive contamination possibly caused by the Yongbyon nuclear facility is a problem that will not go away.
There are also facilities in Yongbyon that store the nitric acid and other liquid waste generated from melting spent nuclear fuel rods, but they were covered with dirt, while new buildings have been built over them to cover them up. Other landfills storing solid radioactive waste, including spent nuclear fuel rods, have been covered with soil and trees. Since North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors in 2002, nobody knows for sure what is going on in Yongbyon.
One intelligence official said, "A bigger problem is the light-water reactor slated for completion in 2012. We don't think North Korea is capable of building it, but if the North compromises safety by hastily finishing it, we might witness a nuclear disaster."
Kim Hye-suk, a North Korean defector who was married to a North Korean scientist involved in the country's nuclear weapons program, wrote in her 2009 autobiography of the effect of radioactive contamination on her husband. She said his skin began to peel until it revealed white tissue, and he had to wear dentures when he was only in his 40s because all his teeth fell out. He also suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. Kim’s husband began working at Yongbyon in the 1980s.
"North Korea has operated its nuclear facilities ignoring safety standards recommended by the IAEA," said a South Korean government official. "The level of radiation in Yongbyon is staggering." Lee Jae-ki, a nuclear scientist at Hanyang University, said, "If his skin peeled off, it means that he was exposed to at least 50 mSv of radiation per year." He could have been exposed to contaminated water in the cooling facility housing spent nuclear fuel rods or contaminated byproducts without wearing protective clothing. The maximum allowed level of radiation is around 1 mSv a year.
One source familiar with North Korean matters said, "I know that many researchers at Yongbyon suffered from hair loss, nausea and dizziness." There are also accounts that North Korean officials avoid escorting foreign visitors to Yongbyon. There are presently around 3,000 people working there, including around 200 scientists.