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Bring your own gas masks to biochemical weapons drills, North Korea tells citizens

Russian troops in gas masks. (Kremlin photo/Released)
March 07, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea last week conducted nationwide civil defense drills, forcing residents to march long distances to drill sites, and requiring that they prepare personal emergency kits, including gas masks, to protect themselves against potential U.S.-launched biochemical weapons attacks, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

During the five-day drill that ended March 3, residents had to show up every day early morning at a training site as far as 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) away, a source in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The source said that people had difficulty moving between their villages and the training site on foot, and the 2-hour-long training consisted of entering a mine tunnel and locating an evacuation point. 

Privately, residents complained that the whole training was absurd, especially because they were told to provide their own rudimentary protection equipment, cobbled together from cloth masks, goggles or safety glasses, and a small amount of alum, a decontaminant. The source said complete kits could be bought in local markets for about U.S.$1.50 – a rather large sum for North Koreans.

“How can they be preparing for biochemical warfare when none of the equipment is provided by the state, and the people are told to prepare their own protection equipment?” the source said. “Where else can you find this kind of stupid training?”

Every person involved in the training must come prepared with the protective equipment, though families are permitted to bring only one kit that they will share, according to the source.

People who have trouble making ends meet are unhappy that they had to spend money on protective gear that will not work in a real wartime situation, a source from the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“They say that it is to prepare for a biochemical attack by the world’s most powerful country, the United States. But they are just claiming that 50 grams of alum, in addition to useless masks and protective glasses, is protection from biochemical warfare,” the second source said. “Residents responded that [the training] is ridiculous.” 

The United States is one of 193 states that are party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed in 1993 and entered into force in 1997, which outlaws the production, storing or use of chemical weapons.  

According to a May 2022 U.S. Department of Defense report, Washington is on track to completely dismantle its stockpile of chemical weapons by the treaty deadline of Sept. 30, 2023.

North Korea, meanwhile, is one of three states that is not party to the convention.

The second source said that many residents complained that they had to walk long distances to and from training every day in the cold, and that the training has no wartime application–the government merely wants to scare residents into being obedient.

“Authorities are spreading fear among residents by talking about U.S. biochemical weapons attacks,” the second source said.” However, the people know that the United States is equipped with the world’s most advanced weaponry and has no reason to engage [us] in biochemical warfare.”