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In 1996, a North Korean Mini Submarine Almost Started a War

February 9, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: North KoreaHistoryWarTechnologySubmarines

In 1996, a North Korean Mini Submarine Almost Started a War

Due to the North Korea’s fanatical military culture, what could have ended as a diplomatic embarrassment ended in a tragic bloodbath.

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.

As an interesting postscript to the event, Lee Kwang-soo, the captured helmsman, defected to South Korea and became a naval instructor. More than a decade later, he would  speak out publicly  that the sinking of the South Korean frigate  Cheonan was the work of a North Korean submarine. As for the submarine he used to pilot, it is now on display in the Tongil Unification Park built at Gangneung.

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 .

This first appeared last year. 

Image: Creative Commons.