The Buzz

How North Korea's James Bond Super Weapon Almost Started World War III

Observers on the South Korean side could only speculate why North Korea continued to send armed infiltrators on obviously risky missions into South Korean soil, despite the Sunshine Policy. Some speculated that factions in North Korea were looking for ways to make the policy fail. Another theory was that North Korea favored submarine insertion over safer methods of infiltration because it helped its military refine infiltrations tactics it planned on using in the event of a full-scale war.

The wreck of the semisubmersible craft was finally located on January 20, 1999, and salvaged in mid-March. The bodies of two more crew members were found inside, one of whom bore a South Korean identity card and passport naming identifying him as Won Jin-wu. He also had computer diskettes, a million Japanese yen, ampoules of poison, rolls of film and a bag of cookies from a bakery in the Bongcheon district of Seoul, along with a rental contract for an apartment in that area. They also found a journal that listed the names and phone numbers of twelve South Koreans in touch with North Korean intelligence.

According to Han Ki Hong of Daily NK, Won Jin-wu was an experienced spy with a record of posing as a Southeast Asian businessman. He had been dispatched to make contact with a group of South Korean supporters of the government in Pyongyang known as the National Democratic Revolutionary Party, after the group’s former leader, Kim Young-hwan, had publically turned against North Korea. Won Jin-wu had appointed South Korean Ha Young-ok to assume Kim’s responsibilities, and trained him on how to stay in contact with his handlers.

The submarine detected in November, it turned out, had actually been attempting to bring Ha to North Korea for training before it was chased away. Instead, Ha and his colleague Sim Jae-chun helped reconnoiter a pickup spot off of Yeosu and delivered Kim Jon Wu for exfiltration at 11 p.m. in December.

What had been the main objective of Kim’s mission in South Korea? Reportedly, to ask Ha to persuade their former leader Kim Young-hwan back into the fold with Pyongyang, thus reinforcing the image of a Kim Jong-il who had only recently fully established his control of the North Korean state.

Yet again, North Korean spies had chosen to go down guns blazing rather than surrender. The incident of Yeosu also indicated how deeply naval infiltration and covert operations were integral to North Korean military and political doctrine. As usual, the loss of life at Yeosu did not seem to inhibit future aggressive actions. Indeed, six months after the “Battle” of Yeosu, a more sizeable battle would be fought between South and North Korean patrol boats off Yeonpyeong Island that would leave more than a dozen dead, followed by an even costlier second battle in the same area three years later.

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: P-3C Orion in flight. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy