North Korea’s extensive underground empire may include underground air bases

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North Korea, one of the most secretive countries in the world, is no stranger to building underground military facilities. Whether a tunnel dug under the demilitarized zone designed to pass thousands of troops an hour, or bunkers to accommodate the regime’s leadership, North Korea has built extensive underground facilities designed to give it an edge in wartime.

One of the earliest examples of North Korean underground engineering was the discovery of several tunnels leading from North Korea under the demilitarized zone to South Korea. The first tunnel located in 1974, extended one kilometer south of the DMZ, and was large enough to move up to two thousand troops per hour under the DMZ.

Thanks to a tip from a North Korean defector, an even larger tunnel was discovered in 1978, a mile long and nearly seven feet wide. Since then at least four tunnels have been discovered, with reinforced concrete slabs, electricity for lighting and fresh air generation, and narrow railway gauges.

It’s difficult to determine how many tunnels exist. One report says that Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, ordered each of the ten front-line combat divisions to dig two tunnels. If completed, that would theoretically mean another dozen or so tunnels remain undiscovered. A former South Korean general, Han Sung-chu, claims there are at least eighty-four tunnels—some reaching as far as downtown Seoul. (The South Korean government does not believe Han’s numbers—nor the claimed ability to reach Seoul—are credible.)

The North Korean People’s Liberation Army Air Force is also believed to have three different underground air bases at Wonsan, Jangjin and Onchun. The underground base at Wonsan reportedly includes a runway 5,900 feet long and ninety feet wide that passes through a mountain. According to a defector, during wartime aircraft would take off from conventional air bases but return to underground air bases.

Another underground development is a series of troop bunkers near the DMZ. A North Korean defector disclosed that, starting in 2004, North Korea began building bunkers capable of concealing between 1,500 and two thousand fully armed combat troops near the border. At least eight hundred bunkers were built, not including decoys, meant to conceal units such as light-infantry brigades and keep them rested until the start of an invasion.

Other underground facilities are believed to have been constructed to shelter the North’s leadership. According to a South Korean military journal, the United States believes there are between 6000-8000 such shelters scattered across the country. This information was reportedly gathered from defectors in order to hunt down regime members in the event of war or government collapse.

North Korea is believed to have hundreds of artillery-concealing caves just north of the DMZ. Known as Hardened Artillery Sites, or HARTS, these are usually tunneled into the sides of mountains. An artillery piece, such as a 170-millimeter Koksan gun or 240-millimeter multiple-launch rocket system, can fire from the mouth of the cave and then withdraw into the safety of the mountain to reload. As of 1986, and estimated 200-500 HARTS were thought to exist.

All these facilities are hard to spot via satellite, so gleaning information from defectors has been the best way to learn about them in peacetime. Pyongyang’s eventual defeat in any wartime scenario is a given, but its underground headquarters, fortifications and troop depots have the potential to not only enhance the Korean People’s Army’s ability to mount a surprise attack, but also to prolong the war, confounding the high-tech armed forces of its adversaries.

[Read full article at The National Interest]

This entry was posted in , , , by Grant Montgomery.

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