North Korea holds emergency wartime readiness drills for hospitals

Wartime readiness drills designed to test the capabilities of county and city-level hospitals in North Korea showed an exhausted medical staff and widespread equipment shortages, sources told RFA.

Hospital employees nationwide were tested over a five-day period for the first time since 2019. They were made to set up field hospital tents, transport equipment and practice carrying patients on stretchers to be ready in the event of war. 

But the tents were falling apart, the employees were inadequately fed, and medical equipment was in short supply, according to the sources, who questioned if the already overwhelmed North Korean medical system would actually be able to handle wartime casualties.

“The drills started with an emergency call by city and county hospitals under the lead of the Civil Defense Department in each province,” a medical source from Chongjin, in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“Provincial, municipal and local hospitals were all involved in the five-day drill. On the first day, on the early morning of Aug. 25, each hospital was loaded with emergency medical equipment and medicines, tents and stretchers that they need in wartime,” he said. “They all gathered at an open space near the Susong River and inspected everyone’s readiness for wartime mobilization.”

On day two, each hospital had to set up a field location supplied with medical equipment.

“The tents had to be set up in no less than three minutes. We had to set up, dismantle and then set the tent up again more than 10 times,” the source said.

“On the third and fourth days, we had training events. These included evacuating patients while wearing a gas mask, identifying generally wounded patients and differentiating them from those who were wounded by nuclear or chemical weapons, treating different kinds of wounds, treating chemical weapons attacks,” the source said.

On the final day, the Civil Defense Ministry had to come up with scenarios to test how each team would react in various situations, he said.

“Most of the medical workers are women. Setting up and dismantling a field hospital and training to transport male patients on stretchers, all while wearing gas masks, was especially difficult for the women,” said the source.

“The training was so hard that in the evening, the female nurses were exhausted and often lay down in bed without enough strength to eat dinner,” he said.

In Puryong county, in the same province, the drill lasted three days and was held at the county hospital, a resident of the county told RFA. Medical personnel were tested in the same manner — evaluating emergency equipment, setting up field hospitals and practicing patient transport and wound treatment.

“Officials of the Civil Defense Ministry came out and watched the whole training. The entire hospital staff from the director of the hospital to lower-level employees were involved in this drill,” the second source said.

“The wartime readiness status of each hospital was very poor. These are the hospitals that must operate field hospitals during wartime, but there is a shortage of tents, not to mention the shortage of medical equipment and medicines,” he said. “The tents were old. Many were torn here and there. These tents have been used for many years.”

Although the drills showed shortcomings in North Korea’s ability to handle casualties during war, the second source said that “it is more urgent to provide equipment and medicine to treat the residents [in peacetime].”

Though North Korea claims it has universal health care, its medical system is notoriously under-equipped and only serves patients who can afford to pay for treatment, according to a 2020 report published by South Korea-based NK-News. Many hospitals have no electricity or heating and surgeries are performed using battery-operated flashlights, the report said. 

“How much money a patient has determines whether they live or die,” a source in the report said.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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