A KU geology professor's research could play a role in helping South Korea defend against a possible underground attack from the North.
Don Steeples knows all about detecting caves, old mines and tunnels -- especially those that could be used by an invading army to sneak under a heavily defended border.
Steeples, Kansas University professor of geology, is watching events develop in Korea from a firsthand perspective.
He was in South Korea three times in recent years as a technical consultant to a team that looked for secret tunnels dug by North Korea under the strongly fortified demilitarized zone that separates the communist North and the capitalistic, pro-Western South.
"The research that we've been doing here at KU in the 1980s, the Army thought might be relevant," he said.
Steeples' research involves digging bore holes in the ground and placing equipment that sends out a sonic pulse. Another piece of equipment receives the bounced signal and displays it on a computer.
Tunnels and caves can be detected using the process, although its range is limited, Steeples said.
"Basically, what you look for is variations of travel time and loudness," he said.
The team searching for the tunnels was made up of people from universities, private companies, the U.S. Eighth Army and South Korean military.
Steeples was near the DMZ with the team in 1988, 1989 and 1990.
At least four tunnels have been found under the zone since 1974. One was discovered in 1990, after Steeples' last visit. Intelligence experts believe there may be 20 additional tunnels.
"Tunnels are about 300 or so feet deep," he said.
They are one to two meters high and two meters wide, extending 435 meters to 1,100 meters south of the DMZ.
Some of the passages are large enough for 30,000 armed men and equipment to travel through per hour.
Steeples said any invasion of the South by the North would almost certainly involve tunnels, because the DMZ is staunchly fortified above ground.
"In addition to all the people there, they have gun turrets and mine fields all over the place. It's very unlikely that the north would mount a successful direct frontal attack on the ground," he said.
"That leaves them three ways they can go: They can go through the air ... around in the water ... or underneath.
"And if you're able to pop out behind the South Korean lines ... you'd have a tremendous tactical advantage."
Some aspects of the tunnels and their detection remain classified, Steeples said, such as how many more have been discovered.
"There's just a lot about it that involves sensitive political issues," he said. "There's all kinds of things that the Army knows that I don't."
Steeples said he probably will not be called back to the area, "But who knows?"