ROK Drop

Avatar of GI KoreaBy on January 14th, 2009 at 1:19 pm

DMZ Flashpoints: The 1996 Spy Submarine Incident


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.

North Korean spy submarine on display in Gangneung, 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.

Destroyed equipment inside the North Korean spy submarine.

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 Hunt

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.

ROK soldiers investigate captured North Korean spy submarine.

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 Aftermath

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?

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.

Scortched electronic equipment inside the North Korean spy submarine.

There was a small sink and a cooking range near the periscope where they made food:

Cooking range within the North Korean spy submarine

In the room with the periscope there was also lots of spy equipment:

Periscope within the North Korean spy submarine.

North Korean spy equipment within the submarine.

In the back of the submarine was the engine room:

Back engine compartment of the North Korean spy submarine.

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.

Looking towards the front of the spy submarine.

Getting There

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?

Tags: , ,
  • American Guy
    12:03 am on December 28th, 2006 1

    hey, i like your blog.

    i noticed that you fought in iraq. i am sort of bored and somewhat patriotic, so i am thinking of enlisting to go over there.

    would you recommend it? i am looking for excitement and i am also thinking about how much every man at one point in his life wishes he was a soldier. so many great men in history fought in war and i think i might like to share that experience myself too. im willing to risk my life to live to a fuller extent. id also like to help my country.

    any thoughts or advice? Id love to hear if you have any.

  • Brian
    12:04 am on December 28th, 2006 2

    Memory is a funny thing.

    I came to Korea in '97. Looking back, I was sure that I was here during the sub incident. I even checked your newspaper articles for their dates, expecting to write this post saying you were wrong by a year.

    Instead, I'm scratching my head and wondering how I could be so wrong. I must have read a lot about it.

    I also read your Songnisan post. I went there in a terrible snowstorm several years ago. The giant Buddha was covered in carpenter's windbreaking sheets. The park and mountain could have been beautiful but we left early because of the weather (it was really exciting going around the switchbacks in a bus in the snow).

  • GI Korea
    12:04 am on December 28th, 2006 3


    You are probably thinking of the North Korean spy sub incident that happened in 1998 when a spy sub got caught in fishing nets and the crew inside all committed suicide instead of being captured.

  • 说客 - Page 2 -
    11:12 pm on June 29th, 2008 4

    [...]…-in-gangneung/ Quote: [...]

  • Gaming North Korea Style
    12:34 pm on October 4th, 2008 5

    [...] Most of these games seem to be military related such as this video game to inspire children to become future spy submarine commanders: [...]

  • usinkorea
    1:50 pm on January 18th, 2009 6

    Good to see the site back up…

    On the Sub Incident

    I remember that time well…

    I was living in Wonju in Kangwong Province and a few hours ride to the coast.

    I remember a couple of middle-aged to elderly Koreans were killed in the region one morning while going to pick mushrooms on a mountain.

    Part of my teaching gig was at a factory in Munmak – about 30 minutes from Wonju – and I remember how many of the factor workers who were still in their military reserve period — had to mass at the factor and wait for buses that came periodically to take them out to this or that location for them to search for the spies.

    I seem to remember they were in some sort of military uniform and had some type of small rifle — but I remember clearly thinking, as I watched them waiting, "Good gravy!! This is what passes as military reserves for South Korea?!!"

    I also remember walking to work around 4:30 in the morning each day and seeing real armed ROK soldiers on the street corners every few blocks. The streets were generally empty, but I can remember them stopping a Korean here and there and checking identity papers. They never stopped me (for some odd reason….. :!: ).

    I also remember a Wonju student at Sanggi University was arrested under the National Security Law for posting an internet message that said maybe the North was telling the truth and stating she didn't trust the South Korean government, because they always pulled stunts like this to gin up the North Korean threat any time the economy was in trouble – as it was at the time.

    I remember a minority of my students had initially said much the same when the news first broke – and before things happened like finding the crew that was executed and then the running gun battles.

  • CPT Kim
    7:54 pm on January 18th, 2009 7

    My ROKA cousins told me that they changed the rank insignia color from White to Black on officers. The North Korean sniper was shooting at the officers by aiming at the White rank which was easier for him to see than the black color.

  • eTravelAsia » Blog Archive » Unification Park, Art, and fish head soup
    8:53 pm on March 3rd, 2009 8

    [...] and explanations on the walls. There are English translations for most of the information.   What happened to the sub?   Back in 1996 the DPRK sent some spies to South Korea in an orange submarine. (Orange is the [...]

  • SSG Huther
    6:27 am on April 25th, 2009 9

    I was a crewchief at Camp Stanley when this incident happened. Two UH-60's and several OH-58D's went south and for the next 30 days we flew night missions under NVG's coordinating with the South Koreans and the Higher command whenever any of the commandos was spotted in the mountains. It was an amazing mission for a 26 year old FI. When a target was identified, the South Koreans would fly several of their UH-60s to the location and flood the area with troops, and basically shoot the hell out of the hillside. I remember seeing blood soaked equipment and weapons in the back of one of the Korean helicopters after one mission. That same year 2-2 had a mission to support the first livefire of a hellfire missile from an OH-58 several miles off the southern coast of SK. There were so many spy ships in the viciniy of the target island we almost cancelled the mission for fear of an incident. One further incident involved the entire 2-2 Aviation battalion moving all the aircraft to Camp Greaves one night with a mission (once approved) to cross the border and rescue NK villagers who were being slaughtered by NK troops. The MP's emptied out the ville of crewmembers and as we ran to the airfield, helicopters were already running with M-60's mounted and chaff in the boxes. We flew to Greaves and sat running for several hours waiting for the word to go. It was about 2am and there were troops and aircraft everywhere. We shut down several hours later when the mission was ultimately cancelled. To this day I dont know if it was an excersize but since they allowed less than sober soldiers to fly that night, I suspect it was not. What an amazing year. I miss the service so much!!!!

  • Tammy
    3:59 pm on July 26th, 2009 10

    I was living in Chuncheon, Gangwon-do at the time. I had barely been there a few weeks when this happened. My friends and I had already made our Chuseok vacation plans to visit Sokcho and Gangneung before this happened and we refused allow any fear or concern alter our plans.

    Our bus stopped at three different military checkpoints on our way from Chuncheon to Gangneung. Since we weren't Korean, they didn't even card us once. We were the kind of aliens they were looking for.

    As I recall, most South Koreans were concerned about the incident but not acting crazy with panic or alarm. Most of the people in Sokcho and Gangneung ignored the 10 p.m. military curfew. I think they may have been too nonchalant about it and that is what some civilians killed in the early days of the manhunt.

  • A Commie Sub « With Backpack
    11:50 pm on November 15th, 2009 11

    [...] What happened to the sub? [...]

  • Who Murdered the South Korean Consul and Why? | The Marmot's Hole
    8:00 am on January 5th, 2010 12

    [...] Korea had swore revenge for their failed submarine infiltration attempt off the coast of Gangneung (rokdrop’s excellent posting) just two weeks earlier (video of the sub now) - the death became very suspicious.   There [...]

  • » Blog Archive » The Chills of the Cold War in Jeongdongjin
    1:05 am on January 11th, 2010 13

    [...] 14 years ago North Korean spies stranded their submarine off Jeongdongjin’s coastline.  The sub was manned by a crew of 26, 13 of whom were elite [...]

  • This is How Wars Start « A Rabbit's Eye View of the Hyperborean North
    6:49 am on May 25th, 2010 14

    [...] perhaps the most serious armed confrontation between North and South Korea since the Gangneung Submarine Incident in 1996, the DPRK has been blamed formally for the sinking in March of the Cheonan, a ROK warship. [...]

  • Locket Necklace :
    7:32 pm on October 24th, 2010 15

    chicken soup and beef soup is always the best tasting soup in my honest opinion. i love the taste of both-''

  • John
    10:35 pm on December 12th, 2011 16

    Nice article. I was stationed at Camp Casey Korea and had been there for about 3 whole days when this happened. It made for a pretty interesting first couple of months in Korea especially when my unit was out in the field.

  • SSG Rick
    6:52 pm on April 15th, 2012 17

    I was in korea for about 4 months when this kicked off. I was bringing online a new means of intell gathering just as this kicked off. Two months of work with the ROK and we believe that no one made it out of the sub except the one captured by the korean farmer’s family. I made it to youngsan to go over the equipment brought off the sub for analysis by the allies. I was impressed with the degree of the smallest detail they tried to go to make their disguises so realistic. Everything was off at the lowest level. They took old AR-15′s chasis to make the military M-16′s, the machining was off along with the hand loaded ammo. I could have bought better equipment in yard sales in the states. The highest tech there was a old sony handy cam video recorder hooked up with a low lux night gathering lens box. Both devices had seen better days and were just about worn out. I remember the Swedish General who was overseeing this asked my opinion on the SCUBA equipment the infiltrators used. I laugh and said it was older than me and the last time I saw equipment like that was on a old lloyd bridges TV show. I showed him the jacuqe cousteu aqualung tag with the manufactured year on it. He shook his head in disbelif also.

  • Daniel
    2:49 pm on March 12th, 2013 18

    I was in Korea when this happened. We stayed in the field for an extra 30 days. 4/7 Air Cav out of Camp Stanton, with OH-58D’s. I miss Korea and this was a pretty intense time.

  • Sal Bora
    3:31 pm on May 1st, 2013 19

    I was there in my OH-58D helicopter with my Troop Delta and Elvis Troops of4-7 CAV flying night missions in Sep – Oct 1996. No mention of US involvemnt in this incident.
    Most do not know.
    Scouts Out – Former D Troop Commander

  • Charles Hoelderlin
    9:04 pm on May 8th, 2013 20

    I wonder whether the taxi driver who first spotted the NK submarine was recognized and rewarded either by ceremony or gifts? I remember when I lived in South Korea years ago that someone there mentioned that when the taxi driver first reported the submarine to authorities that he was doubted.


RSS feed for comments on this post | TrackBack URI

By submitting a comment here you grant this site a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution.

Bad Behavior has blocked 58382 access attempts in the last 7 days.