Along the East Sea highway just south of Gangneung a traveler will see a very peculiar sight of a small submarine on display along the sea shore adjacent to the highway. Upon closer inspection the submarine actually serves as a current reminder of the threat the North Koreans still pose to South Korea.
The submarine is a specially configured North Korean spy submarine that began its final voyage to spy on South Korea at 5PM on September 14, 1996 with a crew of 11 and 15 operatives. The sub arrived on the South Korean coast south of Gangneung on September 15th and infiltrated three spies through the nearby rocky coast that is attached to the nearby forested mountains which provided great cover for the spies. The three spies’ mission was to gain information about a ROK Air Force base near the coast. However, it has been speculated that wasn’t their only mission:
One of the puzzles remains what the submarine’s mission was. Of the 26 infiltrators, only 1 was captured alive, and he apparently did not know the mission. General Park said the purpose may have been to set up an armed hideout in the mountains, in preparation for future terrorism.
”It was not purely an intelligence mission,” he said. [New York Times]
The submarine remained hidden under the ocean until the three operatives returned around 9PM on September 17th.
The spies tried to swim towards the submarine but the waves were to great for them to reach the sub. The spies ordered the submarine to come closer to the shore. The sub got caught in some strong waves and got stuck on some submerged rocks. The crew and the spies tried to get the submarine unstuck from the rocks but to no avail.
The 26 North Koreans then decided to destroy the spy equipment inside and burn important documents before swimming to shore and attempting to infiltrate back to North Korea by land. The odor of the fire they set can still be smelled inside the submarine today. Once on shore the activities of the spies was noticed by a taxi driver who happened to be driving by and reported the incident to the police. The spies and crew had escaped to nearby Gwaebangsan mountain around 11:45 PM on the 17th where the hunt was on to capture them by 60,000 soldiers of the South Korean army.
The next day on September 18th the ROK Army discovers 11 bodies of the submarine’s crew. All were executed by the North Korean operatives who probably feared they would defect. On the same day one lone operative was captured in a South Korean village. The operative informs the army that the spies had broken into small teams in an effort to infiltrate back to North Korea.
On September 19th, two groups of three operatives are killed by the ROK Army along with one lone operative. 18 of the original 26 are now dead along with one captured. The hunt remained on for the final seven spies. Shootouts with the North Koreans continued for the next two days which killed one ROK soldier. On September 20th the Army army killed two more spies. It wasn’t until November the 5th that the ROK Army killed two more of the spies dressed in ROK Army uniforms and carrying M16 rifles. Three ROK army soldiers died in the shootout with the spies.
The man hunt continued for a total of 53 days which ultimately ended in the deaths of 24 of the 26 spies and crewmen. One remained captured and the last spy remained unfound. He probably was able to infiltrate back to North Korea. Most of the dead spies killed themselves rather than be captured by the ROK Army. A total of 13 ROK soldiers and 4 Korean civilians died during the massive man hunt.
The North Koreans claimed the boat was on a training mission and had engine problems and drifted into South Korean waters where they were murdered by the South Koreans. I guess North Korean subs go on routine training missions with civilian clothes, ROK Army uniforms, and heavily armed?
However, this fact didn’t stop some people from making excuses for the North Koreans behavior:
Still, the uproar over the submarine strikes some experts as disingenuous. While South Korea gets its data on the North from satellite images supplied by Washington, the North gets its intelligence from infiltrators, and submarines are believed to drop off infiltrators regularly. (….)
Thus, many Koreans say another reason President Kim Young Sam of South Korea has reacted so harshly is to shore up his popularity at home. [Nicholas Kristof]
These accusations I think are best addressed by this letter to the editor of the New York Times:
To the Editor:
A Nov. 17 news article indicates that President Kim Young Sam reacted so firmly to North Korea’s infiltration of the South by submarine in order to ”shore up his popularity at home.” This is misleading.
The Sept. 18 incident was a flagrant violation of the Armistice Agreement. The United Nations Security Council expressed ”serious concern,” and its statement was adopted by all 15 Council members, including China. The European Union issued a similar statement. President Clinton called the incursion a ”provocative action.”
President Kim’s firm response reflects public outrage. South Koreans feel betrayed by the ingratitude of the North, which has returned Seoul’s repeated offers of assistance with such bloody provocation.
That this is not a matter for partisan politics was demonstrated when our National Assembly passed two unanimous resolutions condemning the act.
The sub incident is a grim reminder that the North’s objective remains unchanged: to communize the South by force. This is too serious a threat for anyone to exploit politically. It is a matter of life or death for the South Korean people.
Suppose a submarine from a hostile country with armed infiltrators aboard invaded Florida. How would America react?
YANG YUN KIL
Seoul, Nov. 19, 1996 [New York Times]
A few days after the incident a South Korean diplomat Choi Duck-keun working at the South Korean consulate in Vladivostok, Russia was assassinated while walking to his apartment. It was a professional hit that appeared to be done in retaliation for the submarine incident by the North Koreans.
When it was all said and done, the South Korean government eventually returned the ashes of the 24 dead North Koreans at Panmunjeom and North Korea actually apologized for the incident.
The apology didn’t mean much because two years later in June 1998, another North Korean spy sub was captured by the South Korean Navy after it got caught in fishing nets. The five North Koreans inside committed suicide. These incidents remain a stark reminder of the aggressiveness of the North Korean regime to this day. It is notable that these infiltrators fought to the death than be captured minus one of them. This is heavy indoctrination to be able to brain wash soldiers to commit suicide rather then be captured. This indoctrination appears to be very similiar to the indoctrination of the imperial Japanese Army during World War II to the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito. I find it ironic that the Imperial Japanese army that brought so much tragedy to the Korean peninsula is now emulated by the North Koreans.
The Lone Survivor
If anyone is wondering what happened to the lone survivor from the North Korean submarine, he continues to live in Seoul today and was actually interviewed three years ago:
The guy had been the submarine’s navigator, and had lived on a North Korean naval base since the age of 14. Subsequently he knew very little beyond daily life on the base, and he was unfamiliar even with what the rest of North Korea is like. For example, he didn’t know what money was. He’d never needed any. When the South’s intelligence agency was done interrogating him and it came time to give the poor guy some orientation about South Korean society, one of the questions he asked at the end was how some bills could have more value than others when they’re all the same size. Shouldn’t the paper that you can buy more soju with be bigger?
When I met him we were also in the presence of a lady, yet he frequently reached down and scratched or held his privates. He had a lot of questions for me even though I was there to interpret. Is South Korea so expensive because there are so many foreigners here? Does each star on the American flag representone of the wars it has won? What happens if you don’t have the money to pay for the subway? Do South Korean women like men who wear ties better than those who don’t?
I can only imagine what happened to this man’s family in North Korea due to his capture. Especially since it happened in 1996 during the Great Famine.
The Spy Submarine Today
Today the submarine is displayed on the same beach where the infiltration occurred. The length of the submarine is 35 meters with a width of 3.5 meters and a height of 6.7 meters. It weighs 325 tons and can travel at a speed of 7.5 knots. North Korea is expected to have at least 10 of these “Shark” class submarines.
Visitors are able to go inside the sub and see the cramp confines the crewmen lived in. The interior is extremely small and crowded with electronic equipment that had been torched by the spies before leaving for the shore.
There was a small sink and a cooking range near the periscope where they made food:
In the room with the periscope there was also lots of spy equipment:
In the back of the submarine was the engine room:
I immediately noticed no sleeping quarters and the guides at the park informed me that the spies actually slept in the torpedo tubes while the crewmen slept on the floor in the engine room. I could not imagine how 26 people were able to live on top of each other in this submarine.
The park is definitely worth checking out and even has a South Korean naval destroyer on display that is also interesting to explore. The park employees in the adjacent gift shop are quite nice and offer English reference material about the incident. Gangneung is easily accessible from Seoul with both direct buses and trains available. If driving just take Highway 50 from Seoul to Gangneung which should take about 2.5 hours. From Gangneung just head south on highway 7 if you have your own car. If not, the submarine is close enough to town to take a taxi if need be.
However you get there, if you are visiting the East Coast of Korea it is definitely worth the time and effort to see a strange site like this one, because where else in the world can go to see an authentic communist spy submarine other then this lonely cliff side outside of Gangneung?