The Buzz

Everything You Need to Know: A Dead North Korean Submarine Almost Started a War

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.

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.

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.

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.

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