In April 2013, China launched Gaofen-1, its first high-definition earth observation satellite (Gaofen-2 was launched just last week, on August 19). This week, China’s National Space Administration reported that Gaofen-1 had captured images showing “dozens of cross-border tunnels” in northwest Xinjiang and along the China-North Korea border. It’s unclear exactly what the tunnels are used for, but Chinese media tied their existence to previous reports on illegal China-North Korea border crossings, as well as reports that Uyghur militant and terrorist groups often travel to foreign countries for training.
For China, the cross-border tunnels in Xinjiang are likely to be of more concern. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and its offshoot, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), both have bases in the tribal regions of Pakistan. The groups are believed to train with other militant groups from around the region, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which claimed responsibility for the June attack on Karachi’s international airport). China is quite concerned about this international training, as it leads to increasing sophistication on the part of ETIM and TIP as well as potentially converting other Muslim militants to the Uyghur cause. However, China’s major concern is that militants trained abroad will then sneak back into China to carry out terrorist attacks. That makes the tunnels a potential threat.
The brief reports in the Chinese media did not specify where the cross-border tunnels led. Xinjiang borders a number of different countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The description of the tunnels as being located in northwest Xinjiang, though, hints that they might connect western China with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. That in turn suggests a more benign explanation for the cross-border tunnels: they may be used by would-be Uyghur refugees rather than militants.
The North Korean border tunnels may represent a similar phenomenon, but in reverse. North Koreans often try to sneak across the Chinese border, looking to start a new life either in China or elsewhere. The reported tunnels may have been used by North Koreans seeking illegal passage into northeast China. The Chinese government regularly repatriates these refugees, despite outcry from human rights groups. The recent UN commissioned report on North Korea’s human rights situation estimated that Beijing has repatriated tens of thousands of North Koreans, almost all of whom then faced punishments ranging from imprisonment and torture to execution.
However, as my colleague Zach noted recently, North Korea is also a large supplier of illegal drugs, especially synthetic drugs. It’s possible that the China-North Korea tunnels could be used for smuggling, whether drugs or other contraband (including technological items like smartphones that are freely available in China but tightly controlled by Pyongyang).
thanks to nomnomnom for the link..
pictures coming in from gaofen are incredible..these tunnels could be for a lot of different things and involve anyone..but i think it will be used as an excuse to target the “terrorists”..