It is an incongruous sight. Balanced on a stand on the rocky shoreline of northeastern South Korea perches a small submarine, just 100 meters from one of the many, many concrete bunkers that stand sentry over this strategic stretch of surf-smashed coast.
The bunkers and tangles of razor wire are South Korean. The vessel is not: She is a North Korean infiltration boat which ran aground here in 1996.
Despite her toy-like exterior – small in size, painted in green and red, she resembles a child’s drawing of a submarine – what happened to her crew is one of the grimmest tales in the annals of modern warfare.
On the night of September 17, 1996, a taxi driver motoring along the coastal road just outside the city of Gangneung spotted something odd in the dark water. Curious, he stopped his car and looked closer. What he was looking at was a North Korean Sango (“Shark”) class infiltration submarine.
He contacted police. At dawn, South Korean naval commandos gingerly boarded the boat and breached her hull. She was empty. Inside, a fire had been lit in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy onboard equipment, but her crew – and the commando unit they had been conveying – had disappeared.
Massacre and manhunt
A security alert was issued at 05:00 on the morning of the 18th for the whole of Gangwon Province, the area where the Winter Olympics and Paralympics are currently underway. According to a detailed report on the operation published by specialist website NK News, over 40,000 South Korean troops deployed into the rugged hills and mountains to track down the infiltrators. Among the hunters were two full brigades of South Korea’s own killer elite: “black berets,” or airborne special forces.
One of their first finds on a hillside was a row of 11 dead men. All had been shot in the head. There was no sign of a struggle. They are believed to have lacked physical fitness, so been executed – apparently without resisting – by their comrades. The remaining sailors – some of whom had special forces training – and a three-man commando team split up and headed north. Their plan was to exfiltrate through 150 km of South Korean territory, then cross the DMZ into friendly territory.
Some of the escapees were dressed in dark-colored civilian clothes and tennis shoes; others were in South Korean uniforms and carried South Korean weapons. These men were elite troops of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB: North Korea’s 200,000-strong directorate for espionage, special operations and, more recently, cyber warfare.
Over the next days and weeks, scattered firefights would take place across Gangwon’s autumnal forested terrain as groups of infiltrators were discovered and engaged. When it was over, 13 had been killed in gunfights. One surrendered to local police. (He was debriefed, turned, and now works as a special advisor to the South Korean Navy.) One was never found. He is presumed to have escaped back to North Korea – a masterly feat of tactical field craft.
In the 49-day search operation, 12 South Korean troops and four South Korean civilians were killed.
It was later discovered that the commandos, using scuba gear, had carried out a successful reconnaissance of South Korean military installations ashore before their vessel ran aground as it came inshore to pick them up.
It would not be the last such operation.
In 1998, a Yono (“Salmon”) class mini-submarine was trapped in the nets of a South Korean fishing boat outside the nearby port of Sokcho – like Gangeung, on the Sea of Japan, or what Koreans all the East Sea. The vessel sunk as it was being towed into shore; by accident, or as a result of scuttling by the crew is unclear.
This time, the crew did not escape. Inside, was a gruesome scene. When the boat’s hatches were forced open, it was discovered that the nine men aboard, crew and commandos, had shot each other and themselves rather than face capture.
An RGB-controlled midget submarine is widely believed to have launched the deadliest attack on South Korea in recent years – albeit on the other side of the peninsula, in the Yellow Sea. The submarine was blamed for the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in 2010, for the loss of 46 South Korean sailors. North Korea denies that attack.
All aboard a claustrophobe’s nightmare
However, North Korea did, belatedly, admit to the 1996 incident: It called it a training operation that went wrong. As a result of Pyongyang’s admission, the cremated remains of the infiltrators were returned to North Korea. The submarine, however, was not.
The boat is now accessible by the public in what is an open-air, waterfront museum just outside Gangeung. The damage to her stern and screws from her grounding is plain to see. A ladder takes you up and into her interior, through either bow or stern hatches.
German U-boat men of World War I dubbed their craft “iron coffins,” but the North Korea boat, at just 35 meters long and less than four meters wide, is smaller than their wartime vessels. Her interior is cramped to the extreme. The three compartments are lined with a tangle of tubing, valves and communications equipment; fire damage can be seen in the conning tower. The only sanitation facility aboard is a single sink.
To picture 26 men, complete with scuba gear and weapons, compressing themselves into this tiny underwater space is a claustrophobe’s nightmare.
Back in the sunshine, the museum’s exhibits also include a small wooden vessel. A North Korean semi-submersible infiltration boat, piloted by naval commandos, she is one of several that have been found off the South Korean coast.
Far more impressive is a World War II-era US destroyer, the USS Everet Frederick Larwon that was donated to the South Korean Navy in 1972. Renamed Jeonbuk, she remained in service until 1999, after which she became part of the museum exhibit. Bristling with gun turrets, anti-aircraft weapons and anti-submarine mortars, she towers over the puny North Korean naval assets in her shadow.
A potent threat; viable potential
Yet, while much evidence suggests that the regular North Korean People’s Army is poorly equipped and poorly fed with minimal medical backup – a defector last year was infested with intestinal worms contracted through eating contaminated food – there is no question that North Korea’s special forces represent a potent threat.
In repeated operations – in 1968, 1969, and the two submarine incursions – these troops have fought to the death, killed each other or killed themselves to avoid capture. And each time, they have taken a heavy toll on their South Korean opponents.
While their equipment may be primitive, their training and motivation are clearly top-tier. A US special force veteran evinces a grudging respect for their spirit.
“Morale probably is high when they are willing to carry out such operations – to send a special forces soldier on an unsupervised, cross-border, probably kamikaze mission, requires very high morale,” said Michael Yon, a former Green Beret who covered the Afghan and Iraq conflicts as a blogger and independent journalist. “They realize that if caught, chances of torture are high, and all odds are stacked up against them. They must be self-reliant – they cannot call for reinforcements or extraction.”
With US war planners reportedly mulling limited strikes against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs after the Paralympics end on March 18, the RGB is a viable asset that Pyongyang could activate in response.
Korea-based US troops, speaking off the record, say that they do not expect North Korea to react to a US attack with conventional weapons, such as artillery: to do so could lead to North Korea losing any possible control as the conflict escalated. The result could mean all-out war, and the likely downfall of the Kim regime.
Hence, a “deniable” response – such as terrorist attacks carried out by deep cover, plain-clothes RGB personnel against US military, political or commercial assets in South Korea, or further afield, such as in Japan or Okinawa – is a plausible retaliation scenario.
Assets may already be in place, Yon speculated. “For those who have not been there and may infiltrate during the time of war, they likely have memorized in detail the maps and terrain around their targets,” he said. “There is a high chance weapons and other war materiel are cached in the South.”
The fact that they sound and look local would make them very, very hard to detect, Yon continued.
“North Korean special forces already speak the language and look the part: A change into civilian clothes backed by counterfeit documents is enough to blend in and supply themselves,” he said. “There is a good chance that some of the officers are living there right now – one wonders how many defectors are operatives, including females.”
Even so, special forces alone are not war winners – and the 28,500 GIs in Korea can draw on much recent experience fighting terrorists, including suicide bombers.
“[North Korean special forces] put more allied troops at risks, we would have to take more casualties because of their unwillingness to surrender,” said Dan Pinkston, a strategy expert who teaches at Troy University. “Our infantry and special forces would have to think about this, they would have to have special tactics – but they have experiences of fighting this kind of threat in the Middle East.”
USA cannot win a conventional or a nuclear war with North Korea. Last year, Trump sent a powerful armada and an even more powerful fleet of submarines to attack North Korea. This expedition ended with two American destroyers rammed by cargo ships and 17 American sailors buried alive by the US navy. North Korea suffered no casualties.
Completely unrelated events. But questions remain as to whether GPS spoofing of the cargo ships might have caused them to veer toward the US warships. If this theory is correct, then North Korea would be the logical culprit.
I chose to tell an unrelated event to tell that the author of this article is telling an event which is unrelated to the events going on in Korea. USA invaded Korea, massacred millions of Koreans and is still occupying part of Korea with 30,000 soldiers. The Americans are the terrorists, the invaders and the murderers. The Koreans are merely defending themselves and their country against the American terrorists. I also wanted to tell that the US government does not hesitate to murder its own people. Any other country would have saved the people even at the cost of losing the ships.
Michael Chan who the heck are you? Methinks you be blowing smoke out of your fundamental orifice. Which history books do you read????
Michael Chan The benevolent North Korean government is defending itself while their glorious leader is living in opulence and his people are starving and imprisoned in gulags. To attempt to defend this regime is ignorance beyond comparison. Frankly, they can do all that and I would not care but to threaten the world with nuclear weapons and their destruction is another matter.
USA invaded Korea in 1950,massacred millions of Korea, destroyed trillions of dollars of infrastructures and is still occupying part of Korea with 30,000 soldiers who regularly rape and murder Korean girls. Moreover, over the last 70 years, USA has invaded and/or bombed dozens of countries and has murdered over 20 million people. The Americans are the aggressors, the invaders, the murderers and the rapists. North Korea has threatened retaliation in case USA attacked it. USA is not the World. North Korea has not threatened the World. You are a liar.
Michael Chan You are full of communist bullshit; find another website and post your BS with the People’s Republic of China…..
Michael Chan Mr.i think your living in the wrong country,if everyone thought like you we would be paying homage to a commie dictator.
Arthur W Dowling Michael Chan is CHINA !!! He either has a very low IQ or a convenient lapse of memory since NK invaded the South with Red China’s help. Otherwise, Korea would be unified as one democratic country and people wouldn’t be starving in the North. The north is a murderous regime ruled by a communist dictator; even China would like to get rid of them.
Michael Chan the DPRK invaded the South in 1950. What should the ROK have done in that situation? Submit?
This story is incomplete. It says nothing about the crew of the Sango sub. The North Korean commandos that the sub was transporting executed the crew, all shot in the back of the head, on the beach close to the sub. They then went off to hide in the forest.
Michael Chan Your comments are so seriously unconnected with factual history that they pretty much discredit anything you have to say. Can’t help but wonder if you’re a NK troll.
Michael Chan Michael: you are either an idiot or a Democrat or is that redundant?
Bwaaaaahahahaaaa….yes, the people of South Korea are suffering so much under the American "occupation". Just look at how underfed they are, or how they have no electricity, no transportation, no cell phones or computers and how they are unable to leave the country and are basically prisioners of their own government…..oh wait, my bad…that’s North Korea I’m talking about. Nevermind…..
The US would defeat the North Korea but it would be costly.
Haha!Michael Chan is a north korean!
Wes Evans Not for us, but Seoul and other cities along the border would take a beating. NoK would lose most of it’s major weapons systems within the first few hours, but the artillery it has hidden along the DMZ would take longer to root out.
Mike Williams not the american selectively amnesiac historical accounts
who the heck are you hossain, american not lost any wars you mention, they retreated from vietnam due to politics and condemnation of the citizen of the world, for korean-sign armistice treaty with the compromise of china to stop the war because china is afraid that if the war continues, n. korean will lost the war and s. korean/us will occupy the whole korean peninsula that borders with china and soviets, for afghanistan, russia lost and withdraw their occupation but not the us who armed and suppoprt/trained the mujaheddin to fight the agreesors (russia)
In every war that USA has created, it has killed more civilians then the so called terrorists.
Chan, don’t worry about comments coming from Americans. They’ve been dumbed down by the people running their Govt over decades.
USA is b biggest terrioest of the world they always kill the muslims 1st the attack on Afghanistan,then IRaq,Yeman,libia and now in syria , and say that muslim are terriost. 1st they creat taliban and haqqanis with the help of ISI to fight against Russia when russia deffeted-they say the taliban are terriost-they also creat daesh in Obama and hiliroy clinton era in syria and iraq -to fight against iraqi and syrian forces -then starting to killing daesh saying they are terrioest. they also looted the all wealth of libiya because there ruller cant want to make relation with american people. USA is a biggest terriost of the world
-they funded and supplying arms in syria to YPG terriost playing double game with turky – turkey is a NATO member but USA playing always double game with there allies
they supported ISIS in afghanistan to fight against taliban-but ISIS is terriost organization -USA is a terriost country in world
If his thinking is common among Muslims, Latif shows us what we’re up against, a denial of reality.
Steve Kohn read the all history . how Taliban and al qaida was created by USA . when Russian attack on Afghanistan American create groups to fight against Russian with the help of Isi . then Russian claps and Taliban are become terriost . .. .America use Taliban against Russia during President Regan era. . hear ur President trump interview in which he admit the Daesh is created by Obama and Clinton. Why u r provided weapons to YPg .he is terrorist organization.?
All I know and can tell is that the US can never win any war with Nk.it shouldn’t think that recruiting Africans into their army will make then win. Military sophistication is nigh an option.
Yes war is garbage. But warmongering minds are also the same. And they consider truth as garbage.
Just wait until we start playing cowboys and Muslims!
Mike Williams michael chan is a chinese…he do anything to make the us face bad..
Like russia and syrian government also killing there own people what a mess
Mike Williams , Michael Chan is only repeating the history he was taught in Mainland China. Where he lives now is unknown but I do know for a fact that in China they are taught that South Korea originally invaded North Korea and the North merely retaliated.
Show your sources for this info. This is not Favebook.
And the Wahabis are lovers of Erstern culture, too.
Your twisted logic isn’t recognized.
Ha ha, just google civilan casualty by US in any war US created and also follow news from rest of world media.
Please ignore Michael Chan. He is a troll. Ignore him and he will go back under the bridge.
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