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N Korea's nukes - planted right under the DMZ?
By Michael G Gallagher

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

SEOUL - The Beijing talks over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program ended inconclusively, and among the many issues those talks failed to resolve was one question that has probably bedeviled US and South Korean military strategists for years: Exactly where is the shadowy North Korean regime hiding its still tiny nuclear (one hopes) arsenal?

The answer might be lying quietly in a tunnel right underneath the feet of the American and South Korean soldiers guarding the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the democratic South from the Stalinist North.

Digging under an enemy's position to outflank his defenses is an age-old military tactic. King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria (circa 880 BC) used tunneling as a tactic to undermine an opponent's fortifications. Using iron tools, his soldiers would excavate a chamber under an enemy's walls, then brace its roof with timber supports. The wooden supports were then burned, causing the chamber and the structure above it to collapse. Both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar used mining in their many campaigns.

Readers may be familiar with a more recent example of military mining if they have seen the American Civil War drama Cold Mountain. In one of the movie's pivotal scenes, the Union forces during the siege of Petersburg try, and fail, to blow a hole through the Confederate trench line with a huge gunpowder mine.

Viet Minh planted tunnel bomb under Dien Bien Phu
Mining as an active military tactic was used as late as the mid-20th century. In 1954, during the final assault on the French positions at Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh attackers exploded a one-ton TNT (2,4,6-trinitrotoluene) mine under the French stronghold, Elaine 2. While the mine failed to explode completely, the partial detonation was still a grave psychological blow to Dien Bien Phu's isolated defenders.

Planning to blow up the enemy's position from below went nuclear during the Cold War. Both the United States and the old Soviet Union had nuclear land mines. One type of atomic land mine fielded by the US military was SADM - special atomic demolition munition. Weighing 163 pounds, or 73 kilograms, SADM had an explosive yield of up to one kiloton. It was part of the US nuclear arsenal from 1966 until 1986.

So it is entirely plausible that the North Koreans have placed one or more nuclear land mines under the DMZ. This possibility is made even more likely by the fact that the North Koreans are among the world's champion diggers.

Between 1974 and 1990, four tunnels were discovered running underneath the DMZ. These tunnels had electric lights, railroad tracks and turnarounds for vehicles. One tunnel even had a small underground plaza in which troops could be marshaled in formation. The tunnels were large enough to allow the infiltration of up to 30,000 troops per hour, including tanks and artillery, into South Korean territory. Some South Korean analysts say there may be at least 20 more tunnels as yet undiscovered.

Kim Il-sung ordered underground hideaways
Burrowing deep underground was the brainchild of the founder of the North Korean state, the late dictator Kim Il-sung. At one point during his rule he apparently ordered that each Korean People's Army division stationed along the DMZ should dig at least two tunnels. Apart from the already mentioned tunnels boring under the DMZ, North Korea might have anywhere from 11,000-14,000 other underground hideaways.

Planting a nuclear bomb in a tunnel under the DMZ would be a cheap and effective delivery system for a poverty-stricken country such as North Korea. Buried bombs would also be an almost foolproof backup system for what may be a marginally successful missile-development program.

In 1998, North Korea flew a Taepongdo-1 long-range ballistic missile over Japan. While it sowed alarm in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, the test itself was only a partial success, with the rocket's third stage failing to ignite properly. Another weapon, the shorter-range Nodong missile, had only one successful test launch during the 1990s. In 2003, the North Koreans conducted two additional missile tests, but these involved short-range, anti-shipping cruise missiles, weapons that posed no strategic threat to the United States and its Asian allies.

Controlling a tunnel bomb would be very simple. During the 1950s, the British government initiated the Blue Peacock project to build nuclear land mines. Products of the Cold War, Blue Peacock mines were to be buried along the projected wartime invasion routes for Russian tanks into what was then West Germany. The classified - its existence wasn't revealed until last July - Blue Peacock project was eventually canceled because of insurmountable environmental and political problems. Still, one aspect of Blue Peacock should alarm anybody who is worried about nuclear-armed moles lurking under the DMZ.

Vengeance from beyond the grave
Blue Peacock mines would have had two methods of detonation: one method was detonation by wire from as far as five kilometers away; the other technique for exploding a Blue Peacock mine was to use a timer, which could have been set for up to eight days before firing. The idea of vengeance from beyond the grave would fit very well with the ultra-tough image the North Koreans often like to project.

Even the idea of a North Korean tunnel bomb, which could be shunted among an unknown number of locations, might be enough to wring some very expensive concessions from the US and its allies during any future talks with Pyongyang.

A North Korean tunnel bomb, if it exists, would also weaken the case of the US administration for the construction a national missile defense system. The threat of North Korea's ballistic-missile program is one of the White House's main rationales for building such a system. The revelation that Kim Jong-il had outfoxed the American neo-cons by mounting a bomb on a rickety, Soviet-era flatbed truck and driving it under the DMZ would cause loud cries of laughter among the opponents of a US missile defense system, not only in Washington, but also in other world capitals.

Michael G Gallagher, PhD, works at Namseoul University, South Korea.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please
click here if you are interested in contributing.

Mar 19, 2004

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