Still Waters Run Deep

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

During the 50-odd years that followed the armistice of 1953, both Korean states have been locked in an intense rivalry. It was a local cold war, a minor version of the global Cold War, but much more emotional since it was a war between the same people. During some periods, this cold war became very hot. Indeed, those decades were an era of daring raids, complicated intrigue, botched and successful assassinations and, of course, of covert naval warfare.

The major role in this quiet warfare was played by North Korean infiltration craft, used to land agents on the South Korean coast. There are three major types of vessels used by the North Korean navy for this purpose. Throughout the history of quiet naval warfare, two ships of each type were lost due to enemy action.

The most unusual and imaginative contraptions are the semi-submersible boats. These can be described as a poor navy’s submarines. They are small boats, with a displacement of some 5-10 tons and a top surface speed of 40-50 knots. They have ballast tanks, and when these tanks are filled with water, the craft submerges almost completely with only the small conning-tower visible above the water. In this semi-submerged state, the craft is much slower, but it is also almost invisible both to both human eyes and radar. Perhaps it is not as good as a real midget submarine, but it is much cheaper and easier to maintain, and it can carry up to six people.

The first battle with such a craft took place in December 1983, when one was discovered not far away from Pusan, and after a chase was sunk by the South Korean navy.

Another semi-submersible was lost in action in 1998. The South Korean signal intelligence discovered the semi-submersible near Yosu in the early hours of the morning of Dec. 18. The South Korean Navy mobilized a number of planes and ships, which approached the boat, demanding that the crew surrender. But North Korean special forces are famous for their unwillingness to give themselves up alive, so they opened fire using small arms. There was no possible doubt about the outcome: the boat was hit by artillery shells and it sank, to be salvaged the following year.

A semi-submersible infiltration boat cannot operate at a great distance from its base, and in most cases it is carried close to the target destination aboard a specially designed mother ship. Such ships are disguised as fishing boats, but they have powerful engines and a built-in dock for a semi-submersible or a more conventional speedboat. The dock is equipped with outward-opening double doors on the stern, allowing the boat to be safely hidden inside the hull.

There have been two cases in which such a ship has been discovered and sunk by hostile forces. The first incident of this kind happened in August 1983, when a South Korean patrol boat discovered just such a ship operating near Ullung-do Island. The ship was sunk after a short shootout.

Another incident took place in December 2001, and this time, the ship was found by the Japanese navy near the Japanese coast. This was not the first discovery of this kind, but on previous occasions, the North Koreans ships managed to flee using their superior speed. This time, however, the ship could not move fast enough _ perhaps the disintegration of economy has influenced the navy as well. As to be expected, the ship’s crew refused to surrender and opened fire, injuring two Japanese sailors. They returned fire and in less than four minutes the ship sank with its entire crew.

The North Korean Navy also possesses a number of submarines, including the Yugo class vessels. These are specially designed midget submarines whose major task is infiltration. The Yugo boats are small, with a displacement of merely 70 tons when submerged.

Such a submarine was caught in a fishing net near Sokcho on the east coast on June 24, 1998. Its propeller and periscope had been fouled. The vessel was captured by the South Korean navy but sank while being towed. The submarine was soon salvaged but all crew and commandos (nine of them – more than usual for a submarine of this type) were found dead after committing group suicide.

Larger Sango class submarines are also sometimes used for infiltration. It was this submarine that was involved in the most high-profile case of military confrontation between the two Koreas in the 1990s. In mid-September 1996, a North Korean Sango submarine was on a routine infiltration mission: a group of commandos were to conduct surveillance of the military installations on the east coast. However, in the early hours of Sept. 18, the submarine ran ashore and was discovered by a taxi driver. The crew and commandos attempted to breakthrough to the DMZ. A long spy hunt ensued, with heavy losses of life on both sides (among the victims there were farmers whom the commandos killed as dangerous witnesses) as well as with the usual group suicide of the North Korean soldiers.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of this quiet war is the unwillingness of the North Korean soldiers to surrender. Few sailors and commandos have ever been taken alive. Does this reflect the exceptional valor of the North Korean warriors? To some extent it may, but also there are other reasons behind such behavior. But that is another story…


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