Soldiers in the border buffer zone in Chunggang-eup, Chagang Province, were recently seen wearing full gas masks instead of medical masks. According to a source in the area, North Korean authorities ordered soldiers stationed on the border to wear gas masks to prevent infection by COVID-19 variants.
A source in Chagang Province told Daily NK on Mar. 24 that “soldiers started wearing gas masks on Mar. 15,” adding that “[The military] gave the gas mask order because the COVID-19 variant is different from ordinary viruses in that it is a ‘protein poison’ [RNA virus], so regular masks won’t filter it out.”
The source said that rumors of COVID-19 mutations being a “protein poison” are circulating among some people living and working near the Sino-North Korean border. The authorities have also reportedly issued disease prevention announcements to military hospitals claiming that COVID-19 has mutated into a “protein poison.”
However, because the fronts of the gas masks are composed entirely of compressed rubber, they may cause wearers to experience difficulty breathing if worn for long periods of time. It appears that the soldiers are only wearing the masks for short periods while performing patrols.
When North Koreans unaware of the internal military directives regarding gas masks saw soldiers wearing them on duty, they thought the masks were being worn as part of the annual winter military drill, the source told Daily NK.
Some people have claimed that soldiers are wearing the gas masks to protect themselves from harmful substances produced by slash-and-burn agricultural activities in Northeast China.
The wide assortment of explanations about the use of gas masks shows that border guards wearing them on duty is an unfamiliar sight even for North Koreans.
“If [the soldiers] were wearing the gas masks as a part of the annual winter military drills, then they should have also been equipped with rifles, magazines, ammunition bags, and other weapons,” the source said. “However, because the soldiers were only carrying handguns, they could not have been wearing the masks as part of the drills.”
The source said it was also unlikely that the soldiers were wearing gas masks to protect themselves from toxic substances. Even though Chinese farms perform slash-and-burn every year between March and April, the soldiers have not worn the masks in previous years.
Workers at high risk of COVID-19 infection in North Korea seem to be required to wear full protective equipment, including gas masks.
The South Korean military reported last year that North Korean soldiers wore gas masks and protective clothing when they executed and burned the remains of South Korean fisheries official Lee Dae-jun, who had been found floating in the West Sea.
North Korean media outlets have also published photographs showing disease control officials disinfecting public facilities such as ports and train stations while wearing gas masks.
Some argue that North Korea’s pandemic may be more serious than expected because even soldiers on patrol duty on the Sino-North Korean border are wearing gas masks.
A North Korean defector familiar with the situation in North Korea said that “From what I heard, suspected COVID-19 cases have increased so much that [patients] can no longer be quarantined in [existing medical] facilities.” He further said that “It appears that North Korea is overreacting beyond the bounds of common sense because the pandemic has become so difficult to control.”
*Translated by S & J