Thousands of N. Korean
tunnels hide arms secrets
Workers live like slaves, says one who escaped
By Barbara Demick Los Angeles Times: Nov. 15, 2003
SEOUL, South Korea - Like so many worker ants, the North Korean soldiers spent their days underground in a vast labyrinth of tunnels.
Their daily commute involved walking down four steep flights of stairs and then along a corridor that went nearly 800 yards into a mountain. They carried tightly sealed cartons, believed to contain raw materials for North Korea's secretive weapons program. Some days, especially if they were being punished, they were assigned simply to dig more tunnels.
K, a North Korean now in his 30s, was recruited at age 17 into an elite military unit working for the agency responsible for weapons production in North Korea. He took an oath to labor underground for the rest of his working life and was assigned to a cave in remote Musan county in North Hamgyong province, about 15 miles from the Chinese border.
"This is how we hide from our enemies. Everything in North Korea is underground," said K, who described the cave where he worked on the condition that he be quoted using only his first initial and that certain identifying details be kept vague .
North Korea is riddled with caves like the, 'one where K worked. In that most paranoid of countries, virtually everything of military significance is manufactured underground, whether it be buttons for soldiers' uniforms or weapons.
A South Korean intelligence source estimates that there are several hundred large underground factories in North Korea and more than 10,000 smaller facilities. Joseph Bermudez, the author of three books on the North Korean military, puts the total number at between 11,000 and 14,000.
Deters pre emptive action
North Korea's relentless tunneling has had a profound impact on the U.S. policy debate over how to handle North Korea's current drive to build nuclear, weapons. It makes the option of pre emptive military action far less viable because so much of the nuclear program is out of reach.
Even if the Pentagon were to develop nuclear "bunker busters," small devices that could penetrate the surface before exploding, the United States would be hardpressed to use them in North Korea without knowing which of the thousands of bunkers, scattered throughout the country were the ones they needed to target.
"Unless you are prepared to invade and occupy the whole country, you might never be able to find what you're looking for," said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea military analyst for the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.
The North Koreans began tunneling after the 1950 53 Korean War, when U.S. bombing destroyed most of their industrial base and infrastructure. The late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung is believed to have been so awed by American air power that he directed key industrial facilities be built underground.
"The entire nation must be made into a fortress," Kim wrote in 1963. "We must dig ourselves into the ground to protect ourselves."
North Korea's mountainous topography, inhospitable for agriculture and transportation, proved to be singularly well suited for Kim's goal.
"We would dig horizontally into the mountains rather than going straight down because we didn't have good technology for water-proofing and we didn't want to run into the water table," said Lim Young Sun, a North Korean defected who worked from 1980 to 1993 in a construction bureau assigned to build underground facilities.
Lim said the North Koreans used mostly Japanese tunneling techniques, although more modern tunneling equipment was later imported from Europe.
In the countryside, small entryways can be seen dug into the sides of most hills with slabs of concrete covering them. Above the Demilitarized Zone that splits the Korean peninsula, the North Koreans have put an estimated 13,000 heavy artillery pieces into mountain bunkers. The artillery is mounted so that it can quickly slide in and out on rails, and the doors face to the north so that South Korean and U.S. troops stationed south of the DMZ could not reach them with return fire.
North Korean tunneling hasn't stopped at the border: Over the years, four infiltration tunnels have been discovered in South Korean territory. Based on defector testimony, South Korean investigators believe there could be as many as 20 more. In Pyongyang, the capital, even the subway system doubles as a bomb shelter. Some stations in the capital are believed to be as far as 100 yards underground, with secret tunnels designed for the exclusive purpose of transporting the leadership in an emergency. Predictably, official maps of Pyongyang do not show the location of subway stations, and with the exception of two showcase stations, the system is off limits to foreigners.
Pyongyang's international airport is believed to have a runway that is largely underground so that an airplane would not be exposed to hostile fire until the moment its wheels left the ground.
While the tunnels conceal North Korea's military infrastructure from surveillance satellites and aerial reconnaissance, people and vehicles going in and out of the sites can be surveyed, as can utility lines.
When a new facility is built, it is possible to estimate its size through the "tailings," the debris that is excavated in the process. But exactly what happens. Inside remains shrouded in mystery.
The North Koreans help maintain the extreme secrecy of the underground facilities by keeping their personnel virtually locked inside. This is particularly true for facilities that are used for weapons of mass destruction.
'Like a big prison'
"Once you go in, you don't go out," said K, the North Korean who worked at the Musan facility until, through a combination of bribery, guile and family connections, he escaped in 1996. 1 volunteered for this, but then I came to realize that it was like a big prison and we were slaves."
When he was sworn in, he took an oath promising to work there until he was 60. During nine years, he left only once bribing somebody so he could visit his family at their home. Others could see relatives only at a reception area outside the facility where visits were heavily supervised by authorities.
Had he remained, K said, he would have been expected to find a wife from among the women assigned to his unit and to raise a family within the compound, which had schools, canteens and other facilities to keep employees relatively content for life. Most of the facilities for staff are within the compound but above ground.
So extreme was the secrecy that even inside, workers had little idea what was being produced.
"Some people said it was for chemical weapons. But everything was wrapped tightly with zinc so that we never really knew what was inside," K said. "We weren't supposed to ask questions."
K's account is corroborated by testimony of other defectors, who speak of secretive military facilities where workers are virtually prisoners.
"In these places, people have a lot of privileges," defector Lim said. "There is no problem with food and there are good schools, but they are like concentration camps, too. You live in secrecy under constant suspicion."