News / Asia

    Ground Game: Tunnels in Gaza, Korean Peninsula

    An Israeli army officer shows journalists a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks from Gaza into Israel, July 25, 2014.
    An Israeli army officer shows journalists a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks from Gaza into Israel, July 25, 2014.

    The Palestinian militant group Hamas may have drawn global attention for using tunnels in its latest war with Israel, but the Gaza Strip isn’t the only place where digging has factored into an ongoing conflict.

    Just look east to the divided Korean Peninsula.

    North Korea is suspected of having as many as 20 cross-border attack tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, some South Korean and U.S. security analysts say.

    South Korean officials base their suspicions on testimony from North Korean defectors, some of whom claimed to have built the passages, say analysts such as Go Myong-Hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

    korea mapkorea map
    x
    korea map
    korea map

    South Korean forces and their U.S. allies have found only four infiltration tunnels – three in the 1970s, one in 1990. But the South Korean Defense Ministry continues to be on the alert for more.

    "We don’t ignore even the smallest signs of a possible tunnel because these tunnels could determine the outcome of a war and our country’s survival," it told The New York Times in a faxed statement in 2012.  

    Meanwhile, at least one South Korean company, the Panmunjom Travel Center, offers a specialized DMZ tour that includes an “infiltration tunnel” visit.

    For decades, some South Korean individuals have looked for cross-border tunnels, too – but critics accuse them of using unscientific methods and wasting money and effort.

    But there’s no disputing the tunnels that both Hamas and North Korea have built, in their own territories, for defensive purposes.

    Other similarities can be found between the North Korean tunnels and those in Hamas-run Gaza, as well as between the forces trying to locate them. But, there are significant differences, too.

    Going on offense

    Both Hamas and Pyongyang have built cross-border tunnels in pursuit of the same military objective: to sneak their fighters behind enemy lines and hurt enemy morale.

    In the current Israel-Hamas conflict, Israeli forces staged a ground offensive against Gaza militants from July 17 to August 5, destroying 32 tunnels, 14 of which crossed into Israel. Militants used the tunnels to ambush and kill 11 Israeli soldiers on Israeli territory.

    Gaza StripGaza Strip
    x
    Gaza Strip
    Gaza Strip

    Hamas has described the tunnels as strategic weapons in its decades-long fight against Israel.

    Israeli authorities have accused Hamas of plotting to use the tunnels to kill civilians in small Israeli communities near the Gaza border.

    As for North Korea, its founder and supreme leader, Kim Il Sung, had called for tunneling under the DMZ, which stretches approximately four kilometers or 2.5 miles wide and 240 kilometers or 150 miles long.

    The tunnels were intended to give North Korea the capability to send thousands of soldiers to exit points several kilometers south of the DMZ, behind South Korea’s front-line combat posts, said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel who served in South Korea. 

    "If North Korean infiltrators were dressed in South Korean uniforms, and also attacked U.S. forces near the DMZ, that would have a devastating effect on the trust between the U.S. troops and their South Korean allies," said Maxwell, now an analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies in Washington.

    Maxwell said such guerrilla tactics have long been a part of North Korean military doctrine.

    Tunnels as defense

    The U.S. and Israeli militaries suspect Pyongyang and Hamas have built many more tunnels for a different purpose: protecting their military assets from aerial assault.

    South Korean soldiers visit the 2nd Underground Tunnel, found in 1975 near the city of Cheorwon, on Sept. 18, 2008.
    South Korean soldiers visit the 2nd Underground Tunnel, found in 1975 near the city of Cheorwon, on Sept. 18, 2008.

    In 2012, Brig. Gen. Neil H. Tolley, then-commander of all U.S. special operations forces in South Korea, said at a special-ops industry conference that North Korea had hidden its military infrastructure in an underground network. He estimated the network includes 20 subterranean air bases, National Defense magazine reported.

    Reports from North Korean defectors and satellite imagery indicate Pyongyang has built thousands of tunnels into mountains and hillsides to house artillery, ammunition and medical supplies, said Maxwell, the Georgetown security analyst.

    "For weaker sides in conflicts, the best defense traditionally has been the earth," Maxwell said. "It provides cover, and the deeper you go, the harder it is for enemy bombs to penetrate."

    In July, the Israel Defense Forces’ official blog said Hamas had created an "underground city of terror,” with "dozens" of access points located throughout Gaza. "Hamas uses these tunnels as weapons caches, bunkers, command centers and a concealed transportation artery for terrorists and weapons."

    Bruce Bechtol, a political science professor at Texas-based Angelo State University, said Hamas apparently had outside help in building its tunnels.

    "Their complexity leads one to believe that they probably were built with North Korean assistance, because most people don't have the know-how," said Bechtol, who previously served as a U.S. Marine and intelligence officer.

    Neither North Korea nor Hamas has acknowledged any transfer of tunnel expertise. But, the two have a common ally, Iran, which has built underground sites to protect its nuclear program from potential aerial attacks.

    Itamar Yaar, former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council, said Iran has engaged in close military contacts with North Korea in recent years, while also sending advisers to Gaza to help Hamas.

    "I would be very surprised if the Iranians were helping Hamas to dig the Gaza tunnels without using the North Korean connections," Yaar said.

    What sets Gaza's tunnels apart

    Pyongyang's fingerprints are less visible in Hamas' cross-border attack tunnels, which have key differences from the four found under the Korean DMZ,  said Israeli defense analyst Eado Hecht.

    "Gaza's offensive tunnels are very narrow and militants have to move in single file, while the North Korean infiltration tunnels are big enough for people to walk three to five abreast," he said.

    Terrain makes a difference, too.

    "The Palestinians have been digging through flat sands, not through mountainous rock, as in Korea," Hecht said.

    Much of Gaza, which borders the Mediterranean, is at sea level – so the deeper the dig, the greater the chance that underground water will undermine tunnel stability. Reinforcement “makes the process more expensive and time consuming,” Hecht said, noting Hamas tunnels reach a depth of only 20 to 30 meters, or 66 to 98 feet.

    In contrast, North Koreans’ four infiltration tunnels go through the DMZ’s hills and mountains, reaching depths of 50 to 150 meters, or 164 to 492 feet.

    Hecht said Hamas also typically waits until it intends to use an attack tunnel before digging an exit point, while Pyongyang's four unused infiltration tunnels had openings on the South Korean side of the border.

    Palestinians started tunneling in Gaza long before receiving any alleged help from outsiders, said Hecht, who teaches military history at several Israeli universities.

    "Gaza clans began digging cross-border smuggling tunnels into Egypt's Sinai peninsula almost two decades ago, learning through trial and error and making huge profits” from smuggled goods, he said.

    Gaza smugglers have built about 1,800 tunnels, of which more than 1,600 have been destroyed by Egyptian security forces mostly in the past year, Hecht said. Other smuggling tunnels have caved in or been damaged by Israeli air strikes. 

    Detection efforts continue

    Efforts to locate attack tunnels built by North Korea and Hamas have been underway for years.

    Maxwell, the retired U.S military officer, was part of a detection team in South Korea in the 1980s, he said.

    "While we were patrolling the DMZ, one of our priorities was to report possible tunnel construction sounds, such as the use of explosives, and try to locate a tunnel by drilling deep into the earth and placing sensors in certain locations," he said.

    Davis Florick, a graduate student specializing in East-West studies at Nebraska's Creighton University, said South Korean and U.S. search teams continue to conduct spot checks along the border.

    "They use electronic wave machines to send pulses into the ground in case the pulses hit a tunnel wall and refract back to the surface," Florick said. "They also use seismographs to monitor earth movements that could indicate if a tunnel is being dug."

    In Israel, authorities have revealed few details about how they uncovered dozens of Hamas tunnels in the latest conflict. Israeli officials have said they are examining various technologies that could help them detect other infiltration tunnels.

    Yaar, who retired from Israel's National Security Council in 2008, said the Israeli government has been aware of the North Korean tunnels in the DMZ and shared knowledge with South Korea, a military ally.

    But, it is not clear if the two sides have cooperated on tunnel-detection technology.

    The South Korean government did not respond to a VOA request for comment, while the U.S. military force in South Korea declined any comment on "operational or intelligence matters."

    Differing challenges

    Israeli experts have concluded that some technologies used elsewhere are not effective in finding Gaza's tunnels because of its sandy soil, Yaar said.

    Another difference between tunnel detection in South Korea and Israel is the level of importance the two nations attach to the mission.

    Florick said Seoul has to deal with bigger strategic threats than the DMZ tunnels.

    "North Korea's nuclear weapon and missile programs demand greater attention from South Korea and the United States," he said. "But it makes sense for Israel to focus on the Gaza tunnels, because they are one of the only means by which Palestinian militants can be resupplied with weapons, other than ships."

    Go, the South Korean researcher, said North Korea's recent emphasis on developing weapons of mass destruction suggests it has shifted away from tools of conventional warfare.

    "Once you build a tunnel and infiltrate commandos, you cannot use it again because it will be discovered," Go said.

    "The North Koreans spent a lot of effort on the four known DMZ tunnels, but didn't get much use out of them," he said. "So, I suspect that they probably stopped building tunnels after the 1990s."


    Michael Lipin

    Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

    You May Like

    Ugandan Opposition Candidate: Only Intimidation, Vote Buying Can Prevent Victory

    Kizza Besigye says he has been drawing large crowds and claims he has widespred support ahead of Feb. 18 vote

    HRW: Both Sides in Ukraine Conflict Targeted, Used Schools

    Rights group documents how both sides in Ukraine conflict carried out attacks on schools and used them for military purposes

    Sanctions Just Got Real for Over 54,000 North Koreans

    Shuttering of Kaesong complex ends virtually any hope of peaceful settlement to long-standing tensions on Korean peninsula in near future

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growthi
    X
    February 10, 2016 5:54 AM
    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Migrant Crisis Fuels Debate Over Britain’s Future in EU

    The migrant crisis in Europe is fueling the debate in Britain ahead of a referendum on staying in the European Union that may be held this year. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that leaving the EU could lead to thousands more migrants arriving in the country. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants are living in squalid camps. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Families Flee Aleppo for Kurdish Regions in Syria

    Not all who flee the fighting in Aleppo are trying to cross the border into Turkey. A VOA reporter caught up with several families heading for Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.