In 1996, One Strange North Korean Submarine Almost Started World War 3
On December 29, the North Korean government offered a rare statement of regret for the incident. In reciprocation, Seoul repatriated the cremated remains of the twenty-four North Korean agents the following day—the first ever such exchange between the two Koreas. Unfortunately, Pyongyang’s habits had not truly changed. Another one of its spy submarines would meet a terrible—and again, avoidable—fate a year and a half later off the coast of the South Korean city of Sokcho, but that is a tale for another time.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has routinely employed ships and aircraft on spying and observation missions of varying legality—and every now and again, something has gone wrong. A too-stealthy American submarine bumps into a Russian counterpart, a spy ship off Korea gets seized, a U-2 spy plane gets shot down, or a Navy P-3 collides with a Chinese fighter and is forced to land in Chinese territory. In the event the spies can’t return to home base, they’ve mostly surrendered to local troops and were eventually repatriated after interrogation and diplomatic wrangling.
In September 1996, it was the turn of a North Korean spy submarine to experience such a mishap. But due to the North Korea’s fanatical military culture, what could have ended as a diplomatic embarrassment ended in a tragic bloodbath.
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At 5 a.m. on September 14, 1996, a North Korean spy submarine commanded by Capt. Chong Yong-ku slipped out of its base in Toejo Dong. The thirty-four-meter-long Sang-O (“Shark”) normally had a crew of only fifteen. This time, however, it carried a special cargo, including a team of three special forces operatives from the elite Reconnaissance Bureau, accompanied by Col. Kim Dong-won, director of the unit’s maritime intelligence department.
At the time, North Korea was in the midst of a devastating famine that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives. This only inspired Pyongyang to grow more paranoid that South Korea, with which it had never declared peace, would exploit its disastrous condition. Before departing, the crew of the submarine had sworn an oath not to return home without completing their mission: to spy on the South Korean military bases around the area of Gangneung, ninety miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two countries.
Captain Chong’s mission was relatively mundane as North Korean special operations went. Another submarine had performed the same mission exactly a year earlier. During the 1960s and 1970s, North Korea had infiltrated thousands of operatives into South Korea, many of whom died on sabotage and assassination missions targeting South Korean leaders. North Korea also pursued a program of abducting civilians off the coast of Japan to serve as language instructors.
The little submarine arrived a few hundred meters off of Gangneung the following day. Around 9 p.m., the special operatives swam ashore in scuba gear, accompanied by two divers to provide assistance. The infiltrators proceeded inland to pursue their mission, while the divers returned to the submarine, which crept back along the coastline to photograph South Korean military installations.
The following evening, the mini submarine returned to recover the special-ops soldiers. But something had gone wrong, and the infiltration team was nowhere to be found. The submarine withdrew to the sea, and again attempted to recover the spies the night on the seventeenth.
This time, though, the submarine ran aground on a rocky reef around 9 p.m. The 325-ton boat came to a rest just twenty meters off of An-in Beach, three miles away from Gangneung, its screw jammed with seaweed. The crew feverishly attempted to dislodge the vessel to no avail. Finally, Captain Chong gave the order to abandon ship near midnight, setting fire to the interior of his vessel before disembarking with his crew.
As fortune would have it, at 1:30 a.m. that morning a passing South Korean taxi driver noticed the silhouette of the stranded submarine in the water—and the nearly two dozen men assembled near the beach. He alerted the South Korean military, which dispatched police and soldiers to investigate. By 5 a.m. the South Korean military had all of Kangwon Province on alert. The abandoned submarine was boarded at 7 o’clock that morning, and soon more than forty-two thousand troops from the Eighth Corps and the Thirty-Sixth Infantry Division were mobilized to hunt down the missing crew, assisted by helicopters and police tracking dogs. The Republic of Korea Navy organized a blockade in case additional submarines were present.