Thursday, August 21, 2014
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.
August 21, 2014 1:52 PM
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 Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
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.
Hamas has described the tunnels as strategic weapons in its decades-long fight against Israel. Gaza, the world’s most heavily-militarized zone, shares a border running 59 kilometers, or nearly 37 miles, with the Jewish state.
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.
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.
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