From 1950-1953, during the Korean War, much of the territory of North Korea was subjected to a sustained bombing campaign that levelled its major cities and left a lasting physical and psychological impact on the country.
While the armistice that effectively ended the war was signed over 60 years ago, one of the remaining legacies of the conflict is the unexploded ordnance (UXO) still buried in North Korean territory and which still poses a risk to the population today.
North Korean authorities claim that there have been over 16,215 victims of explosive remnants left behind from the Korean War, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
In November this year, four experts from the ICRC’s Weapon Contamination (WeC) Unit travelled to North Korea in order to train local Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams and build their capacity to effectively manage the disposal of UXO and related issues.
The unit conducts similar missions in countries like Iraq, the Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Cambodia and Ethiopia.
Following their mission, facilitated by the DPRK Red Cross, the ICRC spoke to NK News about the programme via email:
NK News: Was the training provided by the ICRC WeC unit to the DPRK EOD police the first such ordnance disposal program conducted between the ICRC and the DPRK? If not, what were the previous interactions and when have they taken place?
ICRC: In October 2015, following the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on DPRK confirming that it did not object to (the) ICRC proposed project for the development of domestic capacity in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for the conduct of safe and effective humanitarian explosive ordnances disposal- EOD, the ICRC was able to respond to a request from the Ministry of Public Service (MoPS) EOD unit and offered in-country training by ICRC specialist(s) to the DPRK EOD police teams.
NK News: How did the November program come about? Did the DPRK request help from the ICRC or was this proposed by the ICRC side?
ICRC: The request came through the DPRK Red Cross society, based on the humanitarian challenges represented by the legacy contamination from the Korean war.
NK News: What were the specifics of the training involved and the program as a whole?
ICRC: The ICRC weapon contamination unit has so far delivered three syllabuses of training to the DPRK EOD police.
- Explosive Ordnance Disposal of WW II era land service and air dropped weapons
- How to deliver Risk Awareness and Safer Behaviour training to the civilian population
- Blast trauma care training to EOD police paramedics
NK News: Did the DPRK provide figures showing the amount of, or degree to which land, water sources and necessities are affected by unexploded ordnance from the Korean war? If not, does the ICRC have estimates?
ICRC: The unverified figures provided by the authorities do not enter into issues like land use and “pattern of life”, but it is understood that finds of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and accidents typically correlates with seasonal flooding’s and subsequent landslides related to farmable land.
NK News: Did the ICRC team take part in diffusing actual unexploded ordnance in the field and, if so, what type of ordnance did the team come across and in what areas of the DPRK were these activities conducted? Were they close to population centers?
ICRC: ICRC offers a combination of theory and physical training. The activities include EOD procedures on live UXO from the Korean war. International safety standards are at all times respected and if populated, the areas are being evacuated prior to the controlled demolitions.
NK News: What was the ICRC team’s assessment of the capabilities of the DPRK EOD police? Were they technically skilled and well trained or were there areas they were lacking in and, if so, what were these areas?
ICRC: The ICRC had the pleasure of meeting and working with a very enthusiastic and experienced team of EOD officers. The participants came from all the provincial police EOD teams and were represented by both commanders and specialist(s). The initial training started focusing on the philosophy of preservation of life, also including the EOD operators. Classification and identification was highly appreciated. So was fuze working principles (obsolete technology today) and training on controlled demolitions. Additionally, theory and practise on location systems and geophysical principles was taught.
NK News: The ICRC press content notes that “the preservation of life” was a component of the training. What does this involve specifically, does it include first aid for those that are wounded by the explosion of such ordnance in the attempt to diffuse?
ICRC: “Preservation of life” is in many ways similar to the “do no harm” principle of health services. It incorporates training on potential unfortunate reverberating effects of an accidental or controlled demolition and how to avoid such situations. The blast trauma care is a part of the “duty of care” components ICRC would like to include to the training of the police EOD teams. The training is accompanied with the donation of medical equipment for the teams.
NK News: Was this a component that was especially needed for the DPRK side and how does such training impact the survivability of those injured in instances of unintended detonations? Were there any interactions to this effect with non-EOD domestic medical practitioners?
ICRC: The training was highly welcomed by the police EOD paramedic team as they were interested to learn from the ICRC WeC medical specialist what are the most common injuries and how to address them should they occur. The ICRC Health surgical units have addressed such issues to non-EOD staff in DPRK over the past decade.
NK News: Were there statistics provided by the DPRK, or collected by the ICRC, regarding casualties and injuries caused by exploding ordnance in country?
ICRC: Yes, the unverified figures shows unfortunately consistency in the accident/causality rates by the Korean war legacy weapons. The ICRC therefore welcomes an initiative by the DPRK Red Cross to reengage on training on risk awareness/safer behaviour activities for the affected communities in coordination with the MoPS. The ICRC will design and offer a comprehensive Training of Trainers (ToT) package also for the DPRK Red Cross.
NK News: What was the ICRC team’s assessment of the health and safety precautions used by the EOD and medical practitioners for such events? Were the medical capabilities sufficient? If not, how is this best amended nation wide?
ICRC: The ICRC is known for its transversal approach related to Health issues. The aim of the training on EOD, blast trauma care and risk awareness/safer behaviour is to prevent accidents from happening. ICRC Health specialist aim to engage patients wounded by the Korean war legacy weapons and to contribute to building resilient health structures prepared to provide care to weapon wounded patients throughout DPRK.
NK News: What safety and medical equipment was provided to the DPRK and were there any issues in importing the equipment into the country?
ICRC: No issues with the import as all equipment were checked against the prohibitions listed by the UNSC sanctions committee on DPRK. Tents, stretchers, trauma kits, clothing, two-way safety radio handsets.
NK News: While such interactions are conducted on the basis of humanitarian principles, given the program involves technical training and cooperation of North Korean police, did the ICRC have to consult external bodies prior to engaging in the training program?
ICRC: Yes, the UNSC sanctions committee on DPRK.
NK News: What future plans are in place for the WeC team to continue such programs/training in the DPRK?
ICRC: For the moment the ICRC is considering an extension to this program in 2018 in the same line as explained above and from a strictly humanitarian perspective, dealing with old remnants of war from the Korean war, as experienced in other parts of the world (like Europe after the second world war) have indicated that danger of old ERW can linger on for a century and beyond.
Featured Image: CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC /Erik Tollefsen
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