North Korea’s Underground Bunkers

Hundreds of bunkers are decoys, a defector says, while hundreds more contain material for a possible invasion.

Panmunjom Guards 305 North Korean border guards at Panmunjom, November 2007.

SEOUL—North Korea built hundreds of bunkers at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating it from South Korea even as the previous Seoul government pursued its policy of opening to the North, according to a well-informed defector.

Pyongyang built at least 800 bunkers, including an unknown number of decoys, to prepare for a possible invasion of South Korea while the late South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun was in office, he said.

“Each bunker contains military equipment that can fully arm 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers,” the defector told RFA’s Korean service, adding that construction began in 2004—the second year of the Roh government.

“If a soldier carried all his military equipment, which weighs 32 kilos, and came to the DMZ in full gear, he would already be exhausted before infiltrating into the South. So they built bunkers at the DMZ and put all their operations equipment there,” he said.

The defector, who once worked as an informant for South Korea’s Defense Intelligence Command (DIC), uses the alias Kim Ju Song.

He declined to give any personal details and asked to have his voice disguised for broadcast to protect relatives still in North Korea.

He is scheduled to arrive in the United States on Monday and attend a closed-door session with U.S. legislators in Washington Wednesday.

More than 1,000 bunkers planned

“In the bunkers, there are South Korean military uniforms and name tags, so that they can disguise themselves as South Korean troops. Also reserved are...60-mm mortar shells, condensed high explosives, and all sorts of bullets.”

The bunkers are not linked to a series of underground passages built in the past to attack South Korea, he said. About 70 percent of the roughly 800 bunkers are fakes, he said, decoys “to confuse the South.”

“The North was trying to finish constructing bunkers by early 2008 with the target number of 1,000 to 1,200,” Kim said.

Nuclear-armed North Korea possesses one of the world’s largest standing armies, employing some 1.2 million of its 22.7 million citizens in the military.

The bulk of the forces are deployed along the DMZ and make use of a vast and complex tunneling network to hide their movement from the South Korean military in South Korea’s capital Seoul—a mere 40 kms (25 miles) away.

Kim resettled in Seoul in the early 2000s and worked with the DIC from 2004-2007. As director of a trade center run by the military, he was given the military title sangja, somewhere between lieutenant colonel and colonel.

Through his work for the DIC, Kim said, he wanted to let people in South Korea know the North is not giving up “its principal target of unifying the Korean Peninsula by using armed force.”

“Regardless of Seoul’s appeasement policy, or whatever the South does toward the North, Pyongyang hasn’t given up its aim of unifying the Korean Peninsula by military force. They are sticking to this principle and teaching North Koreans about it,” Kim said.

Trade center with military ties

South Korean intelligence authorities asked Kim to explain the bunkers in August 2005, he said.

Two months later, he said, “I delivered to the DIC my investigation results, including the fact that the North began to build the bunkers in 2004 and that their purpose is to reserve military equipment for attacking the South.”

“In August 2006, I enticed a North Korean platoon leader, who was involved in building the bunkers, into Yanji, China, where three DIC agents interrogated him for two days. So we got all the information about the bunkers, such as the bunkers’ blueprints and how thick their walls and covers are.”

South Korean intelligence officials declined to comment on Kim’s account.

Kim also described his work in North Korea as director of a military-affiliated trade center at a city in the North.

“I worked as a trader for a long time, but I worked as director for six years,” he said. “In each province, there are around two trade centers that are run by the North Korean military.”

Trade centers and their employees are given military status “to intensify the power of control, and to separate the military affiliates from the society, so that we are not bothered by local leaders. The purpose is to give special status to the military affiliates and help us earn more hard currency.”

Although he declined to explain why he chose to defect, Kim said he eventually bribed his way into China, where he spent two months before his connections there arranged passage to South Korea.

“I have a human network in China that I built while I was in North Korea. I got some help from them,” he said.

“I used to visit China for business. And my Chinese counterparts also came to North Korea. Those business exchanges helped me build the human network.”

Radio critical

North Korea allowed ships to carry shortwave radios as a safety measure after a seismic wave struck North Korea’s East coast and killed thousands of fishermen in 2005, Kim said.

Radio channels were fixed to government frequencies, but North Koreans took advantage of this relative relaxation to begin smuggling in radios from China and are now selling them on the black market.

Pyongyang remains deeply wary of international broadcasts, he said.

“The North Korean government’s biggest concern is international radio broadcasts like those of Radio Free Asia. Content promoting democracy and disclosing leaders’ corruption as well as North Korea’s human rights situation—the Kim Jong Il regime considers this its biggest threat.”

“When people learn these things, they don’t believe in the regime anymore. In this context, I think those broadcasts are fulfilling their mission fully and serving as a pillar for the spirit of the North Korean people.”

Original reporting and translation by Song-Wu Park in Seoul. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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Nov 16, 2009 01:00 PM

Great piece of reporting. The 70% proportion of decoy bunkers sounds like something straight out of a Ken Follett novel.