About the Author
JH Ahn was an NK News contributor based in Seoul. He previously worked as an interpreter for United States Forces Korea.
“One of our buddies saw something in the dark,” Park Jae-eun, a recently retired Republic of Korea Army Special Forces (ROKA-SF) Sergeant Major (SGM), tells NK News.
“At least, he thought he saw something. Someone opened fire into the pitch black, and we all shot towards that general direction where he fired, hoping our bullets would hit the North Korean Gongbi (communist guerrillas),” says Park, reminiscing back on the late-Autumn mountains of Gangneung region in 1996.
It was a cold night on September 18, 1996 – just another late-night working for Lee Jin-kyu, a taxi driver in Gangneung City in the province of Gangwon, South Korea.
Lee, who was driving his vehicle along the road near the shores of Aninjin-ri, Gangdong-myeon, found something “abnormal”: a group of short-haired men sitting along the road.
“Thinking of that moment, it still gives me chills down my spine,” Lee would tell JoongAng Ilbo three months later.
After dropping off a customer, Lee returned to the spot – and the group of men was nowhere to be found. He parked his car, went down to the coastal road, and saw “a ship that did not look like a fishing boat” floating on the ocean.
About 25 minutes after Lee reported his discovery to the local police, at around 02:00, an ROK Army sentry from the 68th Division also spotted some “irregularities” around the same area and reported it to his superiors.
What they had all found was an abandoned Sang-O class submarine: a submarine that, they would later find out, had been housing 26 North Korean agents.
Despite reports from two different sources, it took close to three hours for the senior military officials to arrive, observe the vessel, and be convinced that it was an enemy submarine. A Jindogae I alert, the highest level of national security alert, was issued at around 05:00 a.m.
The alert turned the peaceful city of Gangneung into a war zone.
The alarm tore through Gangneung, marking the beginning of what would be a 49-day-long counter-infiltration operation.
“It was a war zone, like what you see in Vietnam War movies,” veterans say. On an average day in the area, over 43,000 soldiers were scouring the surroundings for the enemy.
Among the troops was the ROKA-SF 3rd Airborne Brigade, responsible for Gangwon Province and as a result one of the first responders to the incident, Kim Sun-gon, a recently retired ROKA-SF SGM from the 1st Airborne Brigade, says.
Despite reports from two different sources, it took close to three hours for the senior military officials to arrive, observe the vessel, and be convinced that it was an enemy submarine
“We thought the counter-infiltration operation was going to end quickly,” he says, admitting he did not take the case that seriously at first.
But he soon sensed that “something was not going as planned” when his brigade, not responsible for the Gangwon region, was ordered to the region as well.
“Two weeks after the submarine was found, we were dispatched to Hajinburi, Gangwon Province. During the one hour of flight in the CH-47 Chinook, 36 of us were pumped up, and at the same time nervous, about engaging the North Korean spies. It felt like we were going into a war zone.”
MASS SUICIDE AND KILLINGS
During the two weeks before the 1st Airborne Brigade arrived, many of the North Koreans had already been killed or captured, some even found dead – with evidence pointing towards a possible “forced mass-suicide.”
September 18, the same day the submarine was found, 11 were found dead on the mountainside of Mt. Cheonghak at around 16:30.
It was later discovered that all 11 had been sailors on the submarine, and their heads or jaws had been shot with two or three rounds from AK-47 rifles or TT pistols, South Korean intelligence said. Even the captain of the submarine was among the dead.
The fact that there was no sign of resistance at the massacre site suggested they had “chosen” to die, an ROK military source told media at that time.
“It is possible that the North Korean government ordered other agents to kill them all, to avoid a possible information leak, should a high-ranking officer be captured alive.”
“It felt like we were going into a war zone”
“Considering that all of the dead were sailors, they could have chosen to die – taking responsibility for stranding the submarine and for their family left in the North.”
About ten minutes after the 11 dead Gongbi were found, Lee Gwang Su, one of their comrades, was arrested in a farm village near Mojeon-ri, Gangdong-myeon, adjacent to Mt. Cheonghak. It was through Lee’s testimony that the ROK forces learned that the total number of North Koreans who had landed was 26.
Lee later testified that the torching of the inside of the submarine and the suicide of 11 had been aimed at disguising the true number who had landed, tricking the ROK forces in the hope that they would prematurely stop the search operation.
The first kill by ROK forces came on September 19, on the second day of the operation, when three Gongbi were found and killed by ROK Army Rangers near Mt. Mandeok around 10:15. Three more were killed by the units from ROKA-SF 3rd Airborne Brigade around 14:10 on the same day near Mt. Chilsung, and one more was later killed around 16:10.
On the following day, two more Gongbi were spotted by ROK reconnaissance helicopter near Mt. Cheonghak but were not seen again.
The fact that there was no sign of resistance at the massacre site suggested they had “chosen” to die
A SOUTH KOREAN DIES
The fourth day of operations, September 21, the ROK side suffered its first combat loss.
“The ROKA-SF Sergeant First Class (SFC) Lee Byung-hee from 3rd Airborne Brigade was rappelling down from a hovering helicopter,”Park Jae-eun, a recently retired Republic of Korea Army Special Forces (ROKA-SF) Sergeant Major (SGM), tells NK News. “One of our teammates, who was already on the ground, made eye contact with one of the two Gongbi who were hiding and staring at them.”
Moments after making eye contact with the North Korean spies, the trooper quickly slid to the side, but, unable to see, he fell down a two-to three-meter high cliff and was injured, Park says.
“SFC Lee landed on the ground and at that moment one of the Gongbi opened fire. The bullet went straight through his head, killing him immediately.” The ROKA-SF returned fire, but both of the enemy soldiers got away.
NORTH KOREA REACTS
On September 23, the DPRK finally broke its silence and released its first public statement on the case, calling for the submarine, the surviving soldiers, and the body of the dead to be returned to the North.
“One of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) units, having boarded on the training submarine on September 13 from Wonsan Port, drifted due to the engine failure,” DPRK’s Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces (MPAF) said. “Stranded on the shores of Gangneung, they were forced to land, and the armed clash was presumed to have followed as it was a region under the control of the enemy.”
The North Korean government insisted that the submarine had only contained rifles for training purposes but no heavy weapons: allegedly proving that the submarine was not “infiltrating” South Korea. The South ignored the DPRK and continued the counter-infiltration operation.
Five days after the DPRK’s first response, on September 28, another North Korean – who would later turn out to be the deputy commander of the submarine – was found and killed near Bogwang-ri. A few days later, another North Korean was found hiding in a corn stack and was shot on sight by the ROKA-SF 3rd Airborne Brigade.
“We carried a meter-long metal stick, which we used to stick it in ‘anywhere’ they could be hiding,” Mr. Ha (alias), an ROKA-SF source who spoke on condition of anonymity says, adding that “anywhere” implied almost the whole of the mountain.
“It was early-October, so the leaves have fallen in just about everywhere: making perfect hiding spots for the Gongbi to bury themselves and hide.”
Fearing of getting shot by hidden North Koreans, the ordinary infantry units did not advance much during the search mission, Ha said.
“The infantry would all look up to the ROKA-SF, who, without fear would go and poke the whole mountains if we have to. That was how the Gongbi hiding in the corn stack was found by one of us.”
At this point, 12 days since the operation began, 11 had been found dead, 11 had been killed by the ROK forces, and one was arrested alive, leaving only three more. But it was these three that would be the most troublesome.
This is part one of a two-part series: part two will be published next week
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Youtube, cropped