The Buzz

North Korea’s Secret Weapon: Underground Air Bases

How would the United States and South Korea deal with these underground facilities in wartime? First, it would have to locate the facilities. These facilities are hard to spot via satellite, and gleaning information from defectors is perhaps the best way to learn about them in peacetime. Once war commences, signal intelligence will pick up radio transmissions from previously unknown underground locations, enemy troops will from concealed positions or tunnel entrances, and artillery counter-battery radars will fix the positions of HARTS. It is likely that, despite advance preparations, many of these positions will be a surprise to Washington and Seoul.

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.

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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 was located in 1974, extending one kilometer south of the DMZ. The tunnel was large enough to move up to two thousand troops per hour under the DMZ. A U.S. Navy officer and South Korean Marine corporal were killed by a booby trap while investigating the tunnel. 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 to shuttle dirt and rock back to the tunnel entrance. Collectively, the four tunnels would have likely been able to move a brigade’s worth of troops an hour under South Korea’s defenses.

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 frontline 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. A forty-mile tunnel would reportedly generate a seven-hundred-thousand-ton debris pile, which has not been picked up by satellite. Despite the warnings, the last major tunnel was discovered in 1990 and South Korea seems to believe that the tunneling danger has passed.

If it has passed, it may be because North Korea has decided to tunnel in different ways. The North Korean People’s Liberation Army Air Force is 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 NK PLAAF aircraft, including MiG-29 fighters and Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft, would take off from conventional air bases but return to underground air bases. This is plausible, as one would expect North Korean air bases to be quickly destroyed during wartime.

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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.