In 1996, One Strange North Korean Submarine Almost Started World War 3
That afternoon, a farmer reported a strange man walking in his fields. South Korean soldiers descended upon the area and managed to capture the submarine’s thirty-one-year-old helmsman, Lee Kwang-soo, at 4:30 p.m. Lee claimed his submarine had experienced an engine failure while on a training mission, causing it to drift into South Korean territory. He did not mention the presence of the Special Forces operatives.
Just a half hour later, South Korean troops made a horrifying discovery on the top of a nearby mountain—the bodies of ten men in a neat row, dressed in white civilian tee shirts and tennis shoes. Among them was Captain Chong and members of the submarine crew. An eleventh victim, Colonel Kim, lay dead on his side a short distance away. Every one of them had been shot in the head at short range. The government subsequently instituted a curfew across the entire coast.
Meanwhile, the interrogation of Lee Kwang-soo progressed, assisted, as legend has it, by four bottles of soju, the popular mild Korean liquor. Lee confessed that his boat had been involved in an espionage mission, and noted the crew had been instructed “to commit suicide to avoid capture.” The dead crewmen had been executed because they were “not strong and might have been captured.” It’s thought their deaths may have a punishment for their accidental grounding of the sub, or due to their lacking the combat skills necessary to escape back to North Korea.
Soo also revealed an important fact: his submarine had carried a total of twenty-six men, including the Special Forces personnel. This meant fourteen infiltrators were still unaccounted for. Starting at 10 a.m. the following morning, South Korean troops searching around the mountain lands around Gangdong-myeon engaged in the first of three firefights with dispersed teams of North Korean crew, killing seven by that afternoon at the cost of two wounded. Another four were killed in gun battles by the end of September, their bullet-riddled bodies displayed to the South Korean media, while one of the infiltrators killed a South Korean police officer on the twenty-ninth while he was leaving work in Gangbori. The three elite Reconnaissance Bureau operatives, however, were still on the run.
South Korean president Kim Young-sam had issued a statement on September 20 that he might be forced to retaliate if there were further provocation. Pyongyang replied that its spy sub had “encountered engine trouble and drifted south, leaving its crew with no other choice but to get to the enemy's land, which might cause armed conflict.” It also threatened retaliation for the deaths of the crew. When South Korean consular officer Choe Deok-geun was assassinated in Vladivostok on October 1, it was generally believed his death was arranged in revenge for the crew. The poison used to kill Choi was identical to the type found aboard the captured North Korean submarine, which by then had been towed to Tonghae for inspection.
The hunt for the North Korean agents would last forty-nine days as they sought to escape across the DMZ. On October 9, police found the bodies of three civilians who had been picking mushrooms near Tongdang-ri. Spent 5.56 millimeter casings from M16 assault rifles were found close to their bodies. Two weeks later, an off-duty Korean soldier was strangled to death .
Finally, on November 4, a civilian driver spotted two strange men crossing a highway near Inje, just twelves miles short of the border, and called the police. The following morning, South Korean troops cornered the two agents in a running gun battle on Hyangro Peak. The North Korean operatives responded with blazing M16s and more than a dozen hand grenades, killing three ROK soldiers before being shot to death. A diary found on their bodies recorded their killings of civilians and their journey across nearly eighty miles of South Korean territory.
This marked the end of the manhunt, which cost the province over 200 billion won ($187 million) dollars in economic damage. The North Korean spies killed four civilians, eight soldiers, a policeman and a reservist attempting to escape. In return, of the twenty-six men aboard the submarine, only two remained alive. The third North Korean special force soldier, Li Chul-jin, is believed to have escaped.
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.
The failure to detect the spy submarine led to a shakeup of the Republic of Korea military, with twenty officers disciplined and two general relieved of their posts. In 2011, the South Korean military even staged a military exercise recreating the circumstances of the incident, in order to test whether it could respond more effectively.
The incident at Gangneung demonstrated how deeply the North Korean regime has indoctrinated its troops, to the point that they would commit murder and suicide rather than face capture. Indeed, they likely did not expect mercy from their own government in the event they were captured and repatriated to North Korea alive. This led to the tragic and needless deaths of dozens in an incident emblematic of the perpetual state of conflict and provocation Pyongyang has maintained between the two Koreas for more than a half a century.