The North Korean Spy Sub, a Poisoned Diplomat in Vladivostok, and the Naked, Drunk American Preacher in Pyongyang
The 1996 secret mission that caused tremors from Washington to Seoul to Vladivostok
By Nate Thayer#north Kore
On a lonely stretch of coastal highway on September 18, 1996, South Korean cab driver Lee Jin Gyu noticed a strange gathering of men, all well-groomed and dressed alike, standing conspicuously out-of-place between the road and the ocean in the pre dawn hours .
After dropping off his fare he slowed at the spot on his return trip, but the men were gone. He stopped, got out of his cab and walked down to the beach. As he scanned the horizon, he noticed what looked like the outline of a submarine idly rocking in the waves 20 meters from shore. He called the police.
Authorities arrived to find inside the abandoned underwater spy ship a machine gun, an AK-47 assault rifle, and a hand scrawled message: “We must accomplish our mission.”
40,000 South Korean troops immediately mobilized and the hunt was on.
Thus began a more than month saga of high tension on the Korean peninsula involving the mobilization of tens of thousands of soldier, armed spies on the run, man hunts, the assassination of a diplomat in Russia, the capture of a naked, drunk American preacher accused of being a spy by North Korea, several stabbing deaths of civilians caught in the dragnet, a lone soldier strangled to death in the night, numerous firefights, a group suicide, and a night playing video games at a ski resort.
The taxi driver did not know what he had stumbled into, nor that he was igniting a fire that would spread through the region and beyond, at times dangerously out of control. He had inadvertently encountered a North Korean Shark class submarine with a crew of 26 Special Operations soldiers of North Korea’s General Reconnaissance Bureau on a secret mission to infiltrate the South.
South Koreans were on edge looking over their shoulders for what seemed like forever as the drama unfolded.
Over the next months, a trail of mayhem and intrigue left 24 North Korean spies shot dead, one captured, 16 South Korean civilians murdered, 13 South Korean soldiers shot dead, including a Colonel, and five others wounded, an off-duty South Korean soldier strangled by the escaping infiltrators, a South Korean diplomat in Vladivostok, Russia assassinated, an intoxicated American Christian preacher held as a spy in a North Korean prison, and the two Korean governments teetering on an outbreak of war.
By the time the dust settled 49 days later, one North Korean spy remained unaccounted for, probably having slipped across the DMZ through the most heavily mined patch of land on earth back to the safety of DPRK territory.
As the confrontation unfolded, North Korea responded with signature indignation to the public exposure of the plot, insisting the submarine was on a routine patrol, had experienced mechanical problems, and inadvertently drifted off course, and demanded the immediate return of the now missing crew, threatening the South as tensions spiked.
“It is self-evident that we the victims cannot show self-restraint any longer,” Pyongyang official Korean Central News Agency said as the incident splashed across headlines and the manhunt began. “We have the right to retaliate on the offenders.”
Within 2 days one of the North Korean infiltrators was seized after a farmer saw him in his fields.
At first the captured operative contended the vessel was forced by strong currents into South Korean waters, but after his South Korean interrogators brought out Korean rice vodka, he confessed that they had been on a spy mission to gather intelligence on military facilities.
Soon afterwards, South Korean military forces, who by now were scouring the country, discovered 11 dead bodies with single bullet holes in their heads lying symmetrically alongside one another only a few miles from the site of the grounded submarine.
They included the deputy director of the Maritime Bureau of the General Reconnaissance Bureau, North Korea’s top spy agency in charge of covert foreign operations, including assassination and infiltration squads targeting South Korea; the captain of the submarine; and eight members of the special operations infiltration team.
The head of the General Reconnaissance Bureau Maritime Division lay a few meters askew, his weapon still by his side. The spy team chose a group suicide rather than to be captured by the enemy.
Over the next days’ numerous firefights broke out around South Korea as tens of thousands of mobilized troops began to close the circle on the remaining spies who had no intention of surrendering without a fight. Within two weeks, 11 more of the commandos were killed in separate clashes as the commandos broke into smaller units and went in different directions across the South, choosing to go down fighting rather than the indignity of capture.
By early October, only three of the original 26 member team remained at large.
All the while, North Korea ratcheted up hits threatening rhetoric, denied any hostile intent, and warned of “serious consequences” if their vessel or crew were harmed.
North Korean officers delivered a warning to American military officials at an October 1 meeting at at the truce village of Panmunjom, near the demarcation line that separates the two Korea’s, after the first commandos were killed. A senior North Korean official tried to pass a note to the Americans that read “serious consequences, which would be announced, would occur as a result of the deaths of their soldiers,” the U.S. said in a statement. U.S. officers read the note but refused to accept it.
Days later, a South Korean diplomat was assassinated in Vladivostok, Russia by a poisoned hypodermic needle. He was walking up the stairwell to his seventh floor flat when he was attacked. His diplomatic passport and over $1000 in cash were left untouched in his pocket. There were two pencil-sized holes in his torso which suggested injection of a foreign substance into his body. Tests later confirmed that he had poison in his bloodstream of the same type as that carried by the special operation commandos on the North Korean submarine.
The South Korean government ordered stepped-up security for its diplomats around the world and sent a team of investigators to Russia.
Russian police investigators said it was the work of a team of two or more professional assassins. The diplomat was responsible for monitoring North Korean activities in the area. South Korean officials said the wounds in the stomach were caused by a hypodermic needle. Russian police began searching for two men with Asian complexions who were seen in the stairway shortly before the attack by a Russian woman who lived in the building.
On October 3, Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of the North Korean ruling Korean Worker’s Party and broadcast by Radio Pyongyang, said “South Korea is framing a despicable plot to link our country to the murder.”
In response to Pyongyang’s threats of retaliation for the deaths of by then 22 North Korean infiltrators from the submarine, South Korea ordered security tightened at airports, warned residents that North Korea may strike again, and said diplomatic missions faced possible terrorist attacks.
Prime Minister Lee met security officials and authorities decided to beef up protection of 395 key facilities, including airports, communication centers, ports, and power plants.
Meanwhile, American Evan Carl Hunziker, who had swum, drunk and naked, from China into North Korea “to preach the gospel” on August 24 was seized by North Korean border guards. On October 6 North Korea announced they had captured an “American spy”, and began an effort to use the Christian missionary as leverage in exchange for the return of their remaining crew still being hunted down in the South.
Analysts noted that the North Koreans said they caught the 26-year-old American, who was working as a missionary in Beijing, on August 24 as he swam across the river marking the border between China and North Korea, but did not announce his arrest as a spy until more than six weeks later after the submarine incident unfolded and three days after South Korea announced their broad security crackdown.
U.S. officials said there would be no negotiations to exchange the imprisoned American preacher for the remaining spy team. ”It would be outrageous and indefensible, should the North Koreans try to link the submarine incident with this unfortunate young man who has been arrested, because the North Koreans were the aggressor and the clear violator of international agreements in sending that submarine down the South Korean coast,” Mr. Burns said. ”So we reject any linkage.”
It would be another month before Seoul authorities would track down the other members of the infiltration team still on the loose.
Mounting popular alarm over the spies on the loose led to South Korean President Kim Young Sam firing Defense Minister Lee Yang Ho on October 17th and the resignation of the Foreign Minister.
The submarine affair had even broader consequences.
Security and spot checks were increased at important domestic facilities, including airports, subway stations, department stores, harbors, bus terminals and power plants. Security at South Korean embassies and trade missions abroad was stepped up and increased measures were taken to protect high-ranking officials.
South Korea halted all aid programs to the North, and banned South Koreans from engaging in commerce with Pyongyang.
A delicate process of wooing North Korea from its isolation, a newly inked landmark 1994 accord under which Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program, and international efforts to ease a famine underway that would claim more than a million lives were all threatened by the new tensions.
Seoul said they would delay signing a $4-billion energy agreement of an international consortium with the United States, Japan and North Korea that was part of the delicate negotiations to get Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons program. The program was at the time hailed by U.S. president Clinton as a showcase of multinational problem-solving.
And with three remaining commandos still on the loose, the cost of the incident mounted.
Two months after the vessel went aground, the Korean peninsula saw a surge in tensions, growing fears of escalated military confrontation, a worsening famine that remained unaddressed, the scuttling of progress for improved inter-Korean relations, and, importantly even a new rift created between South Korea and its most important ally, the U.S.
South Korea was angered by the U.S. response to the submarine infiltration after Secretary of State Warren Christopher called for restraint from ”all parties.”
South Korean military commanders suggested the purpose of the spy mission was more than to collect data on military bases. ”We think that North Korea will make large or small-scale military provocations,” said Lieut. Gen. Park Yong Ok, the Assistant Defense Minister. ”We’re preparing.” He said the mission of the commandos may have been to create armed rear bases in the mountains of South Korea in preparation for future large-scale actions. ”It was not purely an intelligence mission,” he said.
North Korea has approximately 100,000 Special Forces operatives trained to infiltrate rear areas of South Korea at the beginning of an invasion.
So with the failure to capture all of the commandos, there was a wave of popular South Korean discontent among civilians, undermining the stability of the South Korean government.
49 days after the vessel landed on the beach, two of the commandos, who now were disguised dressed in South Korean military uniforms and armed with South Korean M-16 assault rifles and grenades, were killed in a last stand firefight.
The violent confrontation, which was only a few miles from the DMZ as the spies attempted to exfiltrate back to the North, left a South Korean Colonel and two soldiers dead, and 14 more soldiers wounded.
Evidence found on the bodies of the two North Koreans told of the sometimes arduous and sometimes peculiar twists of their journey over the previous two months.
For the first days, the commandos had hidden in underground bunkers, and then broke into remote farmhouses to steal food. Despite the intense nationwide manhunt and the loss of the rest of their crew, the two spies continued to pursue their original mission. Film found on their bodies revealed pictures of South Korean military facilities.
And, in a still unexplained detour, the two commandos spent one evening playing video games at a holiday ski resort, where they spent the night.
During their 7 week journey, they killed three South Korean civilians with a knife and strangled a South Korean soldier who had the misfortune to cross the hunted spy operatives path.
The remaining single unaccounted for member of the original 26 man commando unit disappeared. It is believed he slipped across the DMZ back into North Korea.
Throughout the two month period, Pyongyang maintained a posture of high decibel threatening rhetoric, vowing retaliation, denying any nefarious intentions, and demanding the return of the crew and their submarine. South Korea demanded an apology before they would return the remains of the crew or resume negotiations or badly needed food assistance to the famine now fully underway in the North that would cause more than a million deaths in coming months.
Finally, at the end of December, North Korea did something it rarely does. It issued a statement saying they had “deep regret” over the incident which had spiraled by this time far beyond the mission purpose of a covert infiltration to gather military intelligence. But it was not an apology.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 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”
South Korea promptly returned the now 25 accumulated bodies of the spies that the two month confrontation had left in its wake.
After the bodies were returned, North Korea reverted to their usual hubris over state radio by saying “the South Korean authorities admitted and apologized for their inhuman crimes.”