How One North Korean Submarine Spy Mission Nearly Started a War

How One North Korean Submarine Spy Mission Nearly Started a War

Sebastien Roblin

History, Asia

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A disastrous outcome.

Key point: Seoul has had to learn how to counter Pyongyang’s many crazy special operations missions.

At 4:30 p.m. on June 22, 1998, Capt. Kim In-yong noticed a curious site from the helm of his fishing boat as it sailed eleven miles east of the South Korean city of Sokcho: a small submarine, roughly sixty feet in length, caught in a driftnet used for mackerel fishing. Several crew members were visible on the submarine’s deck, trying to free their vessel. Upon noticing the fishing boat, they gave friendly waves of reassurance.

Captain Kim was suspicious. The entangled submarine was located twenty miles south of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Likely, he recalled an incident two years earlier when a North Korean spy submarine ground ashore further south near the city of Gangneung. Rather than surrendering, the heavily armed crew first turned on itself and then tried to fight its way back to the border, resulting in the death of thirty-seven Koreans from both nations. Perhaps he was aware that while Republic of Korea Navy operated three Dolgorae-class mini-submarines at the time, North Korea had roughly fifty small submarines of several classes. So the South Korean fisherman informed the Sokcho Fishery Bureau.

The submarine, meanwhile, freed itself from the nets and began sailing north, with Captain Kim following it at a distance. However, before long the submarine rolled on its belly, stalled and helpless in the water.

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