On September 3rd, North Korea conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test to date. The dual-stage device was a first for Kim’s regime, who had previously only been able to harness the power of traditional atomic bombs. The successful detonation of the country’s first hydrogen bomb had a reverberating effect throughout the world, as nations like the United States had to acknowledge the massive leap in destructive power the test represented for the reclusive state. However, it also created far more physical reverberations within North Korea itself.
The test detonation, it is now believed, resulted in the collapse of an underground tunnel that was part of North Korea’s testing facility, trapping or killing as many as one hundred people. Another after shock would cause further collapses during the rescue effort, trapping or killing as many as a hundred more – and according to reports out of the Japanese media, that isn’t the end to the tragic story of North Korea’s most successful nuclear test to date.
Concerns have been levied by Japanese and Chinese experts that the mountain range that sits atop the Punggye-ri nuclear complex is growing increasingly unstable. This instability not only heightens the risk for further tunnel collapses, but could also potentially release dangerous levels of radiation into the environment; and according to some outlets from the region, that may already be happening.
According to Japanese outlet Asahi Shimbun, citing a North Korean source, the nation is already operating a hospital specifically to treat the soldiers and family members of those assigned to the Punggye-ri facility for radiation poisoning.
According to the report, the North Korean military employs a massive subterranean workforce that may number into the hundreds of thousands for the purposes of building such tunnel systems, however, no figures were provided regarding how many of those workers or their family members are currently undergoing treatment for radiation exposure. Apparently, within the North Korean population, radiation exposure has been dubbed a “phantom disease” that only “may” be tied to the nuclear testing, seeming to indicate that either the populous is unaware of the risk radiation poses to one’s health, or they have been told that radiation could not be the culprit.
North Korea has conducted nuclear tests at the facility for more than a decade, beginning in October of 2006, and it seems unlikely that they will construct a new test facility despite concerns about the stability of the mountain above it. Instead, many believe they will simply begin construction on new tunnels that would permit them to utilize the remaining assets already in place, in order to maximize the use of their limited resources. Each subsequent detonation, however, will almost certainly further weaken the mountain, meaning the risk of its collapse and subsequent release of radiation will remain for years to come.
North Korea has recently claimed that they intend to conduct their next nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean, then later amended that statement to an atmospheric detonation over the Pacific. This could certainly indicate that Kim’s strategy is shifting toward weaponizing atmospheric detonations in the form of an electromagnetic pulse attack, but could also be a shift born out of necessity, as the Kim regime recognizes the instability of their nuclear testing facility.
Image courtesy of North Korea’s KCNA