Jeffrey LewisNorth Korea's Underground Facilities

Lee Yeong-jong of the conservative Joongang Ilbo reports that the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service does not believe activity near Kilju is preparation for a nuclear test:

During a closed-door talk on Friday, NIS head Ko Young-kooc said, “South Korea and the U.S. have been monitoring signs of digging at a tunnel of indeterminate use in the Kilju area from the late 1990s.” He reported, however, “There is no evidence as of yet of signs of a nuclear test.” According to ruling and opposition lawmakers with the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, Ko reported, “Some media reports that claimed signs had been detected of preparations for a nuclear test, like indications the tunnel in Kilju was being sealed up and a viewing stand constructed, were not factual.”

All Ko would say was, “The U.S. used to conduct underground nuclear tests in vertical and horizontal tunnels, and India and Pakistan did the same… The Kilju area has a rock floor, so it’s a good environment for a nuclear test.” He said, however, “For it to be for a nuclear test, we need to detect an observatory and additional facilities and a lot of people and supplies, but we haven’t detected any of this.”

Robert Koehler, translator for the conservative Chosun Ilbo, provides an English translation
on The Marmot’s Hole—his blog dedicated to “North Korea, South Korea-U.S. relations, and Korean cultural news.”

Earlier this year, officials from NIS claimed that North Korea “has constructed 8,200 underground facilities, including 180 munitions factories, to house key government offices and military command posts in case of war.”

The information was released after the liberal Kyunghyang Shinmun obtained a 33-page document signed by Kim Jong Il (“Detailed Wartime Guidelines,” April 7, 2004) urging preparations for a nationwide mobilization. (Summaries are available from Korea Times and UPI.)

Setting aside questions of authenticity and motive for the leak, North Korea has an ass-load of underground facilities. The effect of the extensive tunneling is evident in the North Korea wargame conducted by The Atlantic Monthly:

Gardiner flashed a map of North Korea’s known nuclear-related facilities on the screen, and then showed a series of satellite photos of various WMD targets. Many of the targets were tucked away in underground tunnels or at least partially obscured by what arrows on the photos labeled as “hill masses.” “You begin to see how difficult a target set this is,” Gardiner said.

“Is that a euphemism for undoable?” Secretary of Defense Adelman asked.

“No, not at all,” Gardiner said. General McInerney practically jumped out of his chair to say “No!”

Gardiner continued, explaining that the first few days of the fight would be critical if we were to have any chance of protecting Seoul. To do so, we would have to get the chemical-delivery systems, the missile sites, and the nuclear sites before the North Koreans had a chance to use them. To accomplish all this we would need to carry out 4,000 air sorties a day in the first days of the conflict. In Iraq, in contrast, we had carried out 800 a day.

Director of National Intelligence Mathews disagreed that Seoul could be shielded: “My understanding is that we cannot protect Seoul, at least for the first twenty-four hours of a war, and maybe for the first forty-eight.” McInerney disputed this, and Mathews asked him to explain.

McInerney: “There’s a difference between ‘protecting’ Seoul and [limiting] the amount of damage Seoul may take.”

Mathews: “There are a hundred thousand Americans in Seoul, not to mention ten million South Koreans.”

McInerney: “A lot of people are going to die, Jessica. But you still prevail.”

Mathews: “I just think we’ve got to be really careful. We’ve got to protect Seoul. If your daughter were living in Seoul, I don’t think you would feel the U.S. military could protect her in those first twenty-four hours.”

McInerney: “No, I do. I believe that we have the capability — whether from pre-emption or response — to minimize the casualties in Seoul.”

Mathews: ”’Minimize’ to roughly what level? A hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand?”

McInerney: “I think a hundred thousand or less.”

I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. No more than one hundred thousand killed. Tops. Depending on the breaks.


  1. The Marmot (History)

    Glad you found the translation useful.

  2. JLo (History)

    There’s a “marmot” on this site? Cool.

    Dr. Lewis, I’m aware from previous posts that this sort of human calculus is one aspect of a certain perspective on the field. Do these sorts of statistics play a large role in discussions of other cities (say, Philadelphia)? Are there ranges of numbers assigned to major cities (or minor ones, for that matter)?

    As Dirksen so famously observed (forgive the paraphrasing), a hundred thousand here, a hundred thousand there…pretty soon you’re talking about real people.

  3. Arrigo (History)

    Am I the only one that in reading the paragraph with the general standing up shouting “No!” felt a cold shiver down his back?

    It reminded me of the scenes in the command post of Dr. Strangelove but in a far more sombre way.