SEOUL – Jeroen Visser traveled to the winter Olympics – the last Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018 – to cover the Games. But on the ground in South Korea’s freezing east coast, the Dutch journalist discovered something more compelling than winter sports: A captured North Korean mini-submarine.
“I found the submarine – it is one of the major tourist attractions – and the ‘Unification Museum’ where they have Kalashnikovs, grenades and rocket launchers displayed,” Visser, 42, told Asia Times.
The submarine and its related exhibits are set – somewhat incongruously – in a coastal park just outside the coastal resort town of Gangneung, which hosted 2018’s indoor winter sports events.
They memorialize a bloody incident that captured Visser’s imagination. They also compelled Visser, who is now based in Stockholm for the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, to write a book, North Korea Never Says Sorry.
The non-fiction account of the operation and its aftermath was published in Belgium and Holland last month. One reviewer said “it reads like an unlikely, thrilling adventure story.” Others call it “disturbing” – even “insane.”
A mission goes lethally wrong
In September 1996, Pyongyang’s espionage arm, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, deployed a Sango, or Shark, class mini-submarine, with 26 crew aboard, on an intelligence-gathering mission to the South. Its target was an airbase adjacent to Gangneung.
Three spies aboard the vessel, all expert infiltrators, landed and completed their mission – a photo-reconnaissance of the airbase and its surroundings. But as they attempted to extract on the night of September 17, things went badly wrong.
“There was a storm and high waves and the submarine was stranded 20 meters off the coast,” Visser recalled. “They tried to blow up the sub, but failed, and so the 26 persons aboard set off in groups. The book is about what happened next.”
A taxi driver looking for a late-night fare spotted a group of suspicious figures and reported them to police. That, and the discovery of the stranded submarine in the rocky surf line at daybreak, sparked a massive manhunt involving 40,000 South Korean troops, including elite airborne rangers.
That operation would continue for 49 days.
At its outset, 11 of the submarine’s crew appear to have been killed by their own comrades. Some believe this was harsh punishment for the sailors’ failure to get the submarine off the rocks.
Others believe they consented to be killed, on the understanding they would never be able to make the grueling escape-and-evasion of almost 100 kilometers, through mountainous terrain, across the DMZ and back to the North.
“This provocation, with all these absurd details, made it very interesting to sort of reconstruct what happened,” Visser said.
But this story was extensively reported at the time – and is now well known. What new information does Visser bring to the table?
One of the most curious parts of the story is that two of the spies kept – in defiance of the kind of guidelines that govern Western special forces operations – a log of their daily activities, right up until their deaths in a gunfight. The log was captured with their bodies.
“I managed to get hold of the whole diary,” Vissers said. Although it is not publically available, he and his translator discovered it in the library of Seoul’s National Assembly. “I know of no other case when the commandoes of the Reconnaissance General Bureau made a record of their mission,” Visser said.
Visser found the diary, which was interesting, entertaining and sinister.
“They disclose their tactics, how they work, and who they kill,” he said. “And they make fun of the South Koreans, of how badly trained they were, and how easy it was to escape from them – but in the background, there is a tension, this tension of if they will get caught.”
Their drama soon turned deadly. “They ran into three older South Koreans – a woman and two men who were probably searching for mushrooms in the mountains – by chance,” Visser said.
At least two recent Western special forces missions – a British SAS patrol in Iraq and a US SEAL unit in Afghanistan – were compromised, with deadly results, after their hide locations were discovered by local civilians. In neither case did the SAS or SEALs silence their discoverers.
The North Koreans were more ruthless.
“They killed the civilians,” Visser said. “Two with bullets and one was strangled and hit with something.”
But the noise of the killings was overheard. South Korean troops converged and found the site 24 hours later. From there, the two North Korean operatives were tracked.
“In the end, they were seen about 10 miles from the DMZ,” Visser said. “They had been spotted before, but managed to escape – but now they were surrounded.”
In the ensuing firefight, the two killed three South Koreans and wounded 14, before being gunned down by South Korean special forces.
That deadly day, November 5, 1996, ended the manhunt – but not the story.
The missing men
Lee Kwang-soo, the submarine’s helmsman, was the only member of the crew to surrender. “He was trained to hold the sub at the right depth when spying through the periscope and helped the spies get on and off the submarine,” Visser said. “He was a well-trained RGB guy.”
Lee was turned and became an officer instructing the South Korean Navy in the RGB’s organization and tactics. What, then, of the crew member who was never found? Was he the lone survivor who made it back to North Korea?
“It is a very intriguing case,” Visser said. “He was one of the younger crew, not an officer, and he was never seen again. Lee testified that he was there, but nobody ever found a trace of him.”
The missing man has become something of a legend in the South.
“I spoke to a lot of sources in the South Korean intel services and they thought he made it back,” Visser said. “And if you go to the sub today, [the docents] tell you he made it back.”
However, Visser is convinced they are wrong. He believes that the case of the missing submariner has become mixed up, in the popular mind, with an officer from an even deadlier, earlier, North Korean commando mission with which the 1996 operation shares a number of parallels.
In January 1968, a platoon of North Korean commandos crossed the DMZ, infiltrated South Korea and launched an assault on the presidential Blue House.
Their aim was to assassinate the national leader. After that, a huge special forces operation was to be launched that would seize key communication and transport nodes – allowing North Korea to seize the headless South Korea by coup de main.
In the event, the commando assault ran into massive South Korean firepower. All the commandos were killed but two. One was captured and turned, another successfully exfiltrated through South Korea, across the DMZ, and back into the North.
The latter was promoted to general and, in subsequent years, even joined a number of delegations to the South.
Returning to the lost submariner, Visser is certain he was unable to reach the North. “There is no evidence that the guy made it back,” he said. “I found a North Korean documentary where they remembered the Gangneung incident 20 years later, and they had a list of 25 dead crewmembers, and he is part of that. So North Korea also believes he is dead. His grave is on film and his name is on a monument.”
All the dead crew members won official awards from Pyongyang and were buried in the national cemetery after their ashes were returned by South Korea in December 1996.
But Lee, the turncoat, who worked for the South Korean military, is never acknowledged by his former masters.
“They erased him from history, and, according to sources, sent his wife and family to a prison camp – he had a three-year-old son and brothers and sisters and parents,” Visser said. “They never forgot his betrayal.”
Indeed, Visser became aware of two North Korean operatives who attempted to track Lee down at his secure location inside South Korea.
“They sent two agents to learn more about his whereabouts – both stories are spectacular,” said Visser. “One of the guys that was used to find more info about him was ‘Black Venus’ – he is a famous double agent and his story was made into a film in 2018 that premiered at the Cannes Festival, The Spy Gone North.”
During his career, that spy even met the late national leader Kim Jong Il – during which he reputedly concealed a micro recorder in the urethral duct of his penis.
“During my research, I found one story after another,” Visser said. “It makes a fascinating book, but also told me about North Korea and the relationship between the Koreas.”
No apologies from Pyongyang
North Korea unleashed a range of deadly commando and espionage missions against the South in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
In addition to the two operations detailed above, those missions include a special forces infiltration and guerilla campaign along South Korea’s east coast in 1968, the attempted assassination of the South Korean president during a state trip to Rangoon, Burma, in 1983, and the bombing of a South Korean airliner over the Middle East in 1987.
Today, however, these bloodbaths have tapered off.
North Korea retains a massive special operations capability under the auspices of the RGB – some estimates put their personnel at 200,000. The millennial RGB is also believed to be the agency responsible for Pyongyang’s cyber commandos, who engage in both intelligence gathering and larceny online.
However, North Korea’s current military priority, and its foremost investment, is in weapons of mass destruction, notably nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. It is these assets, rather than commando troops, which get the country attention in the newsrooms and corridors of power in capitals such as Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.
What, then, does the grim tale of 1996 say about the Pyongyang of the 2020s?
“It taught me about the nature of the regime, which I think has not changed at all,” Visser said.
One issue that retains force on both sides of the border is the ongoing struggle for moral legitimacy.
“After the incident, North and South Korean negotiators battled around one tiny detail for months – that North Korea had to say sorry, and the tension would go away,” Visser said. “And eventually they said sorry, though of course, the apology was not sincere at all. That said a lot about relations between North and South Korea.”
Another lesson is North Korea’s diplomatic priorities. In those, Seoul, the junior partner in a cross-Pacific alliance, falls well behind the mightier Washington.
Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in invested significant political capital in improving cross-DMZ relations. However, after the summit triumphs of 2018, he ended up being humiliated by North Korea – which blew up an inter-Korean liaison office and has largely ignored his late-term calls for an inter-Korean peace treaty.
“If you look at the way North Korea treated South Korea back in the day, all they wanted to do was talk to the US,” Visser said. “They don’t seem to care at all what South Korea thinks.”