Yongbyon’s history marked by accidents and human experimentation

Defector interview reveals secrets behind North Korea’s nuclear facility
September 5th, 2013

North Korea’s Yongbyon facility has a decades-long history marred by fatal accidents, radiation poisoning and human experimentation, one defector with working experience of it says.

In 2002 a group called ‘Rescue the North Korean People Urgent Action Network’ interviewed defector Lee Mi (a pseudonym) about her work as a researcher at the secretive Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in the 1990’s.

The interview, conducted originally in Japanese and translate this year for the first time into English, reveals intricate details behind the facilities’ construction, the consequences for those working at it, and how the North Korean government grew the nuclear program from its infancy.


In her testimony Lee said that the plant’s construction began in 1953 with the building of a research center in Hamhung City, which eventually expanded into the Bungang Region in Yongbyon County in the late 1950s.

Without the expertise to develop the site independently, North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung sought the help of the Soviet Union, who Lee said provided up to 200 scientists and advisers, as well as initial materials for the construction of the Yongbyon complex.

Although North Korea was said to have been able to operate the Yongbyon facility with relative independence from 1970 onwards, Lee instead claimed to have seen Russian personnel emerging from restricted areas in the Yongbyon facility as late as 1998.

Lee was able to detail and draw the physical layout of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, which includes a hidden railway line, nuclear waste dumps, research labs and secret underground complex complete with “caves that branch out into different interconnected tunnels.”

Lee said that an underground cave network was used to store nuclear and chemical research material during International Atomic and Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspections in the 1990s.

The Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center has always been a critical focus for denuclearization talks with North Korea, with the complete and verifiable shut-down of the facility a long-standing American goal.


Lee worked at the 304th Research Laboratory at Yongbyon, where she said development of nuclear weapons was emphasized, but research into chemical weapons also took place.

Of the activities Lee details, the most sinister allegedly occurred in the testing laboratories at the Hamhung branch where chemical and biological experiments took place.

“At the first stage, they used rabbits or mice and squirrels for animal tests, but for the first-hand experiments, they employ(ed) prisoners or felons by using injections,” Lee said.

The interview also reveals the tragic consequences of the construction and operation of the Yongbyon Research Center. Lee said that during the construction of the hidden cave systems, large numbers of workers were killed or injured as a result of the poor conditions.

Lee also claimed that until around the year 2000 there were signs of physical ailments among the scientists that worked at Yongbyon, as well as a series of birth defects, caused by the leaking of nuclear material in the past.

A South Korean official speaking to Yonhap News disputed the idea that a defector with this knowledge even existed. The official told Yonhap that no such defector had passed through the South Korean processing system in place to screen North Korean refugees.

Nonetheless, Lee Wha-rang, who received his doctorate in high-energy particle physics from Purdue University, and who published Lee’s recollections, said that although some of her statements were not factually accurate, “the general picture described is correct.”

The full transcript of Lee’s interview, commissioned by historian Bill Streifer, is available in the latest edition of KPA Journal.

Picture: Yongbyon roadsign, KEI

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About the Author

Hamish Macdonald

Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.