It must have been an odd sight. On September 18, 1996, Lee Jin Gyu, a South Korean taxi cab driver, was taking a passenger on the Gangneung-Tonghae coastal highway. A little before one in the morning, the driver noticed a group of men clustered on the side of the highway. Their hair was short, their clothes nearly identical. Lee—perplexed and curious—completed his fare before returning to the area. The men had disappeared. A strange shape, however, lurked in the water. Walking down to the ocean under a waning crescent moon, he observed what “…looked like a dolphin or a submarine” about 65 feet from the shore.[i] “I was certain it wasn’t a fishing boat. So I reported it to the police,” Lee recalled.[ii]
The cab driver was lucky to be alive. He had unintentionally stumbled on 26 North Korean soldiers and a grounded DPRK Sang-O (Shark) class, 325-ton submarine.
The next seven weeks would lead Republic of Korea (ROK) forces on a desperate manhunt to capture the infiltrators. 16 South Korean citizens and 24 of the 26 DPRK soldiers lay dead before it was over. Authorities would take just one North Korean into custody, while a surviving member of the doomed submarine crew vanished completely—likely across the demilitarized zone into North Korea.
And yet, on September 13, 1996, as the submarine crew set out from Toejo-Dong—the headquarters of the North Korean Navy’s East Coast Fleet near Hamhung—there was little inclination of the grave events awaiting them. The lone captured crewmember later informed investigators that the mission was not new; a year earlier, on approximately September 15, 1995, infiltrators had conducted a similar operation around Gangneung, gathering intelligence on nearby military installations.[iii] A year later, as a North Korean general treated the crew to a special dinner before their departure, they only knew for certain that their mission was significant.[iv]
The North Korean submarine’s 26 passengers, part of the 22nd Squadron of the Maritime Department of the Reconnaissance Bureau, consisted of 21 crew members, three Special Operations Forces, as well as the Director and Vice Director of the Maritime Department. They had prepared extensively, conducting five separate training missions. Every member of the doomed crew, moreover, affirmed his total allegiance to the Dear Leader, signing a vow to come home “only ‘after fulfilling the order of General Kim Chong Il.'”[v]
From September 14-15, the Sang-O submarine moved stealthily towards Gangneung on South Korea’s eastern coast. Around 11 PM on the 15th, three SOF commandos and two crewmen, serving as escorts of some type, slipped quietly into the water about 1000 ft. from the shoreline. After arriving on the beach, the reconnaissance unit stashed their scuba equipment and set out on their mission. The two escort crewmen swam back to the submarine, and the North Korean vessel moved away from the coastline. An attempt the following evening to retrieve the three North Korean infiltrators failed for reasons unknown, leading the submarine to return to the coast for a third and final time on Tuesday, September 17. That evening, at approximately nine o’clock, the submarine’s back tail became lodged in a reef. Efforts to free the submarine failed, and the commander, Captain Chong Yong Ku, ordered the crew to abandon ship for the shore.[vi] There, the crew broke up into smaller groups and headed for the mountains of Odaesan National Park.
Within hours, South Korean forces arrived at the abandoned submarine, finding a machine gun, an AK-47 rifle, 100 grenades, and “a note that read, ‘We must accomplish the mission without fail.'”[vii] By early morning, the ROK Army was mobilizing massive forces to find the submarine crew.
By 4:30 on the afternoon of the 18th, ROK forces captured a North Korean soldier, Lee Kwang Soo, after a farmer saw him and notified police. While Lee remained silent at first—expressing concern for his family’s wellbeing in the north—he opened up after investigators offered him four bottles of Soju—Korean vodka. Lee lied at first, telling investigators that ocean currents pulled the submarine into South Korean waters after it lost power, but eventually admitted that he and 25 other soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission of military and naval installations.[viii]
South Korean soldiers stumbled on a grisly discovery two and a half hours after Lee’s capture. A little under five miles from the submarine site on a mountainside, 11 members of the crew were found dead, each with a bullet wound in the head. The bodies, clothed in civilian garb, lay neatly beside each other, minus the Director of the Maritime Bureau—a DPRK colonel—who fell a few feet to the side, pistol still in holster. Aside from the colonel, the remaining dead included the Vice Director of the Maritime Bureau, the submarine captain, and eight crewmembers. It remains uncertain whether the group willingly committed suicide together or if the colonel had ordered the weaker crew members’ execution to prevent their capture.[ix]
On Thursday, September 19, South Korean soldiers, numbering approximately 40,000, closed in on the area with a dragnet. That day saw seven DPRK soldiers cornered and killed in multiple firefights. ROK forces then succeeded in tracking down and killing an additional four infiltrators over the next 11 days.
Thus, by October 1, only three individuals of the 26-person crew remained at large. These North Korean soldiers would prove much more difficult to find.
North Korea, for its part, demanded the immediate return of the submarine and its crew, claiming the vessel had only drifted into South Korean waters after engine trouble. As the manhunt unfolded, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency threatened the South repeatedly, stating: “’It is self-evident that we the victims cannot show self-restraint any longer…we have the right to retaliate on the offenders.’”[x]
Following another North Korean threat of “serious consequences” in early October a South Korean diplomat, Choi Duk Keun, was murdered in Vladivostok, Russia after two assassins stabbed him in the stomach with what is believed to have been a poison-filled hypodermic needle. His body was found on a staircase with $1,200 still in his pocket.[xi] Whether North Korea ordered the assassination is impossible to confirm, but, as tests later revealed, poison from the diplomat’s body matched poison found on the submarine’s crewmembers.[xii] Pyongyang denied having anything to do with the assassination.
Adding to the drama, North Korea announced on October 6 that it had captured an “American spy,” Evan Carl Hunziker, after he swam across the North Korea border—naked and intoxicated—on August 24. Though Hunziker admitted the incident, he later claimed he had gone to North Korea to “preach the gospel.”[xiii] Shortly after, Department of State officials, commenting on the American’s arrest, rejected the possibility that the U.S. or South Korea would consider any agreement exchanging North Korean crewmembers for Hunziker.[xiv]
South Korea, searching frantically for the remaining three members of the submarine crew, continued in a state of alarm throughout October.[xv] It wasn’t until November 5, however—49 days after the manhunt started—that South Korean forces managed to corner and kill two of the remaining infiltrators. In the ensuing firefight, the North Korean soldiers, clad in ROK uniforms and armed with M-16 rifles and hand grenades, killed three South Korean soldiers, including a colonel, and wounded 14 others before being overcome. They were just 12 miles south from the DMZ.[xvi]
A diary and film rolls found on the soldiers revealed ominous details about their journey. After September 18, the infiltrators evaded authorities for nearly two weeks in underground dugouts before starting to the north. Along the way, the soldiers seized food from private households and—quite inexplicably—spent a night at Yongpyong ski resort playing video games.[xvii] As their travels continued, the soldiers later stabbed three civilians to death and strangled a lone ROK soldier. The film rolls demonstrated they had photographed military bases along the way.
Even with the death of the two soldiers, the South Korean public remained disquieted as the last member of the submarine crew disappeared altogether; authorities believe he made it across the DMZ—or died trying.
Tensions would not abate on the Korean peninsula until December 29, when the DPRK offered a statement of “deep regret” for the submarine incident. While not an outright apology, the statement was a rare moment of contrition for Pyongyang, reading:
The spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is authorized to express deep regret for the submarine incident in the coastal waters of Kangrung, South Korea, in September, 1996 that caused the tragic loss of human life. The DPRK will make efforts to insure that such an incident will not recur, and will work with others for durable peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.[xviii]
The following day, the South Korean government returned the remains of the submarine crew at Panmunjom. Days later—as Pyongyang urged its citizens to “finish the ‘arduous march’ victoriously”—North Korea explained the return of the soldiers’ remains as proof that “the South Korean authorities admitted and apologized for their inhuman crimes.”[xix]
[i] Quoted in Bruce W. Nelan and Stella Kim, Time, Vol. 148, Issue 16 (September 30, 1996).
[iii] Harry P. Dies, Jr., “North Korean Special Operations Forces: 1996 Kangnung submarine infiltration,” Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 4 (October-December 2004): 30-31.
[iv] Nicholas D. Kristof, “North Korea Threatens the South Over Killing of Soldiers from Sub,” The New York Times, September 28, 1996, 4.
[v] Quoted in: Harry P. Dies, Jr., “North Korean Special Operations Forces: 1996 Kangnung submarine infiltration,” 30. Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., North Korean Special Forces, 2nd Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 161.
[vii] Quoted in Nicholas D. Kristof, “South Koreans Hunt Last of Infiltrators from Sub,” The New York Times, September 19, 1996, A1. Bruce W. Nelan and Stella Kim, Time, Vol. 148, Issue 16 (September 30, 1996).
[viii] Dies, “North Korean Special Operations Forces: 1996 Kangnung submarine infiltration,” 32. Kristof, “South Koreans Hunt Last of Infiltrators from Sub,” The New York Times, September 19, 1996, A1
[ix] This statement is based on the captured DPRK soldier’s comments at a press conference in Seoul that the group was killed “’by their colleagues because they were not as strong and might have been captured…we were told to commit suicide to avoid arrest.’” See: “Captured Agent Says N. Korea Building Sub for Inﬁltration,” The Korea Herald, October 1996, 1. Quoted in: Dies, “North Korean Special Operations Forces: 1996 Kangnung submarine infiltration,” 32.
[x] Kristof, “North Korea Threatens the South Over Killing of Soldiers from Sub,” The New York Times, September 28, 1996, 4.
[xi] Nicholas D. Kristof, “North Korea Delivers Warning in Sub Incident,” The New York Times, October 3, 1996, A8.
[xii] Dies, “North Korean Special Operations Forces: 1996 Kangnung submarine infiltration,” 32.
[xiii] Nicholas D. Kristof, “North Korea Reports It Has Arrested an American in a Spy Case,” The New York Times, October 7, 1996, A9. Timothy Egan, “Man Once Held as a Spy in North Korea Is a Suicide,” The New York Times, December 19, 1996, A14.
[xiv] “North Korea Charges American With Spying,” The New York Times, October 9, 1996, A7. Hunziker was later freed after then-U.S. representative Bill Richardson traveled to North Korea to negotiate his release. Hunziker killed himself less than a month later. See: Egan, “Man Once Held as a Spy in North Korea Is a Suicide: A life of Alcohol, Drugs, and Futile Dreams,” The New York Times, A14.
[xv] With the public’s frustration mounting, President Kim Young Sam fired the ROK Defense Minister, Lee Yang Ho, on the 17th of that month. See: “Seoul’s Defense Chief Ousted Over North’s Sub,” The New York Times, October 18, 1996, A8.
[xvi] Dies, “North Korean Special Operations Forces: 1996 Kangnung submarine infiltration,” 33.
[xvii] “South Korean Manhunt Missed a Video Parlor,” The New York Times, November 8, 1996, A7.
[xviii] Quoted in Nicholas D. Kristof, “’Deep Regret’ Sent by North Koreans,” The New York Times, December 30, 1996, A1.
[xix] “New Year editorial calls for stepping up general onward movement of Korean socialism,” Korean Central News Agency, January 1, 1997. “KSDP and CCP of Korea on settlement of ‘submarine incident,’ Korean Central News Agency, January 3, 1997.