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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
North Korea conducted rare blackout exercises and mass evacuation drills in secondary, tertiary cities and towns last week, multiple sources told NK News on condition of anonymity on Saturday.
The wartime preparations were not observed in Pyongyang, further sources said, and were restricted to locations outside of the capital – particularly on the east coast of the country.
The developments come during a time of sharpened tensions surrounding the peninsula and in anticipation of a pending intercontinental North Korean ballistic missile (ICBM) test, an event which some say could result in a kinetic military response from the United States.
But such blackout and evacuation drills are extremely rare in North Korea, multiple other sources with long experience working inside or on the country told NK News, making it difficult to gauge their purpose amid the current atmosphere.
“I have never heard of this type of training exercises before in North Korea, but am not surprised,” said LTG Chun In-bum, a recently retired three star lieutenant general from the South Korean army. “They must realize how serious the situation is.”
In addition, a regular visitor insider with years of experience visiting the country told NK News that they had “never heard of (such preparations) happening.”
“There used to be air raid drills in 2003, but not since then,” the source said, who didn’t want to be identified due to the sensitivities of talking about military issues to the media. “A mass evacuation would be impossible not to notice.”
Another regular visitor working in the country conferred: “I have never heard of evacuation exercises happening before.”
But one defector from Pyongyang, however, said he recalled experiencing similar drills in the city “sometimes three times a year…especially at the time of military exercises of ROK and U.S. army.”
While evacuation drills – precise details of which were not provided by sources – may be prudent as far as helping save lives in the event of bombing campaigns in affected areas, blackout exercises have, however, much more limited utility in the contemporary military environment.
“In this day and age of precision bombing and all weather capabilities, (such) North Korean civil exercises either come from ignorance of modern war or just a propaganda campaign to frightening their own people and induce obedience,” LTG Chun said.
Taking place outside the capital, such preparations are also starkly different to spring 2013 – when during a period of sustained inter-Korean confrontation – Pyongyang authorities took steps that appeared intended to foster a sense of crisis.
At the time, these measures included urging resident diplomats to evacuate, declaring the decades-long inter-Korean armistice invalid or requesting local vehicles in Pyongyang cover roofs with camouflage netting.
“I think the crux is that we cannot be sure whether genuine security concerns are driving this, or the wish to portray the image of a government that has concerns over security,” said Christopher Green, a PhD candidate at the University of Leiden.
“But on the other hand, the whole point of U.S. messaging has been to instill fear, so is not some measure of fear justified?,” he continued.
President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea at the UN General Assembly in September should the DPRK force the the U.S to defend itself or its allies, all while an increase in military deployments surrounding the peninsula has notably sharpened significantly of late.
“I suppose however that if they are not doing drills in Pyongyang, then they are not yet sensing that an attack on the capital is at all likely at this stage,” Green said.
Notably, during the 1994 crisis surrounding North Korea’s nuclear aspirations with Washington, “daily air raid drills were a feature,” he added.
Many analysts believe Pyongyang has a strong technical motivation to attempt at least one more intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, probably on a first-ever long-distance trajectory, something that recent remarks from the White House suggest will result in major friction between the two countries.
Furthermore, North Korea has warned twice it is considering an atmospheric nuclear test in the Pacific ocean, a move which NK News understands would be viewed by parts of the U.S. government as an “attack on the homeland”.
Main picture: NK News
This article was updated on October 29, 11.21 KST, to include comments from a Pyongyang defector