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How a North Korean Spy Submarine's Mechanical Meltdown Ended in Shocking Tragedy

The incident underscored South Korea’s inability to consistently detect and interdict North Korean mini-submarines, leading some commenters to joke that the nation relied on fishermen and taxi drivers (as occurred in the Gangneung incident) to patrol her waters. To be fair, however, small submarines like the Yugo-class boats are extremely difficult to detect in the shallow waters off the Korean coast, a threat underscored by the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010. Shallow, rocky waters also led to a collision between much larger Russian and American submarines in 1992, due to their inability to detect each other over background noise.

Despite the death of its crew, Pyongyang did not make a big fuss as it was eager to receive South Korean economic aid to assist its recovery from a devastating famine. Seoul did it best to overlook the spying in an effort to make the Sunshine Policy work.

However, North Korea never ceased its espionage activities, nor did it change its death-over-surrender policy. In July that year, South Korea recovered the body of an armed North Korean agent with an underwater propulsion unit. And in December, another North Korean mini-submarine opened fire when challenged by South Korean ships, resulting in the Battle of Yeosu, the subject of the next piece in this series.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: North Korean Sang-O submarine that ran aground in South Korean waters near Gangneung. Wikimedia Commons/Creative [email protected]

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