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North Korean Special Operations Forces: 1996 Kangnung submarine infiltration.

"Ever since the Korean Conflict ended in cease-fire in 1953, the clouds of war have never really been cleared because of the never-ending military provocations by the north."

--Park Chung Hee, President, Republic of Korea, 1961-1979

In September 1996, North Korean Special Operations Forces (SOF) infiltrated the South Korean eastern coast near the town of Kangnung. The North Koreans, numbering 26, abandoned their stranded submarine and rushed from the beach into the surrounding hills. What followed was a two-month bloody manhunt for the infiltrators that left all but two of the North Koreans dead. During the manhunt, 16 South Korean soldiers and civilians died and 27 were wounded.

I was assigned to the J2, United States Forces, Korea (USFK) at the time and offer this account of the Communist North's submarine infiltration that went terribly wrong. The infiltration mission was one of collecting intelligence on the Republic of Korea (ROK). U.S. senior leaders have identified the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, also North Korea) as part of the "axis of evil" and a potential threat to national security. In fact, North Korea has been an ongoing threat to peace and stability in Northeast Asia for the past 50 years. The failed infiltration mission provides some insight into how the North Koreans might conduct wartime infiltrations and gives us a glimpse into the training and capabilities of their SOF.


North Korea has the largest special operations force in the world. Currently, the North Korean SOF numbers more than 100,000 soldiers, approximately 10 percent of their active duty military. Their mission includes the seizure, destruction, or both of--

[] Command, control, communications, and intelligence (C31) nodes.

[] Aerial ports of debarkation and seaports of debarkation.

[] Logistics sites.

[] Lines of communication.

[] Key terrain.

Additional SOF missions include--

[] Raids.

[] Targeting.

[] Assassination.

[] Reconnaissance.

[] Intelligence gathering.

The North Korean SOF comprises 25 brigades and 5 reconnaissance battalions. These Special Forces fall under the DPRK General Staff Department and more specifically under the Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureau, Reconnaissance Bureau, Army Corps and Divisions, or Korean People's Navy.

The North Korean soldiers who infiltrated Kangnung belonged to the Reconnaissance Bureau (REBU). The REBU is the most elite of all the North Korean SOF units. The REBU consists of 5 reconnaissance battalions numbering approximately 2,500 personnel and 3 sniper brigades numbering approximately 10,500 personnel. (1) (The term "sniper" is more of an honorific title rather than a mission statement of the unit.)

The North Korean SOF soldiers are the best-trained personnel in the North Korean People's Army. They conduct tough and realistic training and on numerous occasions have conducted real-world missions for the North Korean regime. As an example, three SOF soldiers went to Burma in 1983 with the mission of assassinating then South Korean President Chun Do Won. Although the assassination attempt on President Chun failed, the SOF soldiers did kill 17 ROK government officials traveling with Chun.

The SOF soldier is a dedicated guard of the Fatherland and servant of "the Great" General Kim Jong II. Figure 1 lists some characteristics of the individual North Korean SOF soldier.

Figure 1. Characteristics of the North Korean SOF Soldier

[] Highly motivated, well-trained, and disciplined fanatical fighter.

[] Educated and from an urban and politically reliable background.

[] Politically indoctrinated and ideologically loyal to the North Korean regime.

[] Prior military service from four to seven years in a combat arms branch.

[] Tough and physically fit with a consistent program of physical training, road marches, and martial arts.

[] Trained not to surrender, but to fight to the death.

[] Will choose suicide first, rather than surrender. Methods of suicide include SOF soldiers shooting each other or using a grenade to inflict their own death. (2)

Chronology of Events

This was not the first time the DPRK had conducted a seaborne infiltration near Kangnung. The only captured North Korean of the 1996 infiltration stated that an infiltration near Kangnung had occurred a year earlier on 15 September 1995. The following will describe the chronology of events in the failed 1996 attempt.

Preparation. On 13 September 1996, Captain Chong Yong Ku, Commander of Number 1 Reconnaissance Submarine, Second Team, 22d Squadron, Maritime Department of the REBU, his crew, and REBU SOF soldiers conducted a final mission meeting. Before this final meeting, the submarine crew and SOF soldiers had conducted five training exercises, two of which were dress rehearsals "under operational conditions." (3) All the REBU soldiers took and signed an oath of allegiance pledging to return only "after fulfilling the order of General Kim Chong II." (4) Lieutenant General Kim Tae Shik, Director of the REBU, ordered the infiltration team members to "perform their mission with courage." (5)

Mission. Of the 26 North Koreans, 21 were crewmembers, 2 of whom were trained reconnaissance team escorts. The Director of the Maritime Department, Colonel Kim Dong Won, and the Vice Director were also on the submarine. The remaining North Koreans were a three-man SOF reconnaissance team. (6) The SOF reconnaissance team's mission was to collect intelligence on military facilities near Kangnung, while the submarine crew was to photograph the beach and nearby facilities. (7)

This was not a new endeavor by the North Koreans. The late Kim II Sung, previous DPRK dictator, stated in the 1970s that his military reconnaissance teams kept U.S. military maneuvers in South Korea under surveillance. (8)

H-Hour. At 0500 on 14 September, the Number 1 Reconnaissance Sango submarine departed its base at Toejo-Dong, located on the North Korean east coast above Hamhung. The DPRK had specially modified the 325-ton Sango (Shark) class coastal submarine for infiltration missions. The submarine was 32.5 meters long and 3.7 meters wide and can cruise at a maximum submerged speed of 12 knots. At 1930 on 15 September, the submarine arrived approximately 8 kilometers off the South Korean coast near Kangnung. Kangnung is 140 kilometers east of Seoul (the capital of South Korea) and 150 kilometers south of the Demilitarized Military Zone (DMZ). The submarine approached the coast and stopped approximately 300 to 400 meters from the shoreline.

Infiltration. A SOF reconnaissance team and the two escorts departed the submarine in scuba gear and swam toward the shore. At approximately 2100, they reached the shore; the SOF team hid their scuba gear, while the two escorts returned to the submarine. The submarine then returned to international waters. On 16 September, the submarine returned to ROK waters to recover the SOF reconnaissance team. Since the recovery was not successful, the submarine again returned to international waters (see Figure 2 for a map depicting the route of the 1996 infiltration operation).


On 17 September, the submarine reentered ROK waters to make a second attempt to recover the team. At approximately 2100, the submarine ran aground and eventually settled approximately 20 meters off An-in Beach (5 kilometers south of Kangnung). The submarine crew tried unsuccessfully to move, but the grounding damaged the submarine and it was now stuck. Captain Chong ordered the crew to abandon the submarine. They started a fire on the submarine in an attempt to destroy the equipment aboard. At 2350, the 26 North Koreans reached the shoreline with the weapons and equipment they could carry.

Abort Infiltration Mission. At approximately 0100 on 18 September, Lee Jin Gyu, a South Korean taxi driver, spotted a group of men huddled near the Kangnung-Tonghae coastal highway. Lee also saw a large object in the water near the beach. (9) He was suspicious and notified ROK authorities. Soon afterward, both ROK Army units and police were alerted, rushed to the area, and began blocking and searching operations for the North Korean infiltrators. The North Koreans quickly separated into several groups and headed inland toward the mountains.

At 0500, General Kim Dong Jin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Headquarters, ROK Defense Ministry, ordered a Chindogae One (alert order) across Kangwon Province and surrounding areas. The ROK Army would eventually mobilize approximately 40,000 soldiers, along with helicopter and "sniffer dog" support in the hunt for the infiltrators. (10) The anti-infiltration operation encompassed an area with a 50-kilometer radius surrounded by ROK soldiers and police. The ROK Army also imposed a night curfew for the area. At daybreak, a special unit of the ROK Navy boarded the submarine and found a Czech-made machine gun, an AK-47 rifle, approximately 250 rounds of ammunition, and other items.

Escape and Evasion. On 18 September at approximately 1110, ROK soldiers spotted two armed North Koreans fleeing. The North Koreans had previously come upon two farmers, and after beating them, fled. The farmers then notified the police, and ROK soldiers were soon in pursuit.

Capture and Interrogation of Lee Kwang Soo. At approximately 1630 on 18 September, the submarine helmsman, Lee Kwang Soo, was spotted near a farmer's field and a local resident phoned the police; the ROK Army subsequently captured Lee. During the interrogation, he initially refused to talk because he feared for the safety of his family in North Korea. Reportedly, his ROK interrogators provided him with four small bottles of Soju, a traditional Korean-made distilled liquor brewed with rice and water. After drinking the Soju, Lee began to loosen up and talk. He initially lied and stated that the submarine lost engine power shortly after departing from the port of Wonsan and then drifted into South Korean waters. He said there were 20 personnel on the submarine, but later stated there were 26. He subsequently told his interrogators that the mission of the submarine was to collect information on South Korean naval and air bases near Kangnung.

Later, the ROK presented Lee, a lieutenant in the REBU, to the public at a press conference in Seoul. At the press conference, he stated:

"We were not on a training but a reconnaissance mission. The mission was to be prepared for a big war, considering the fact that [the] chief of the Maritime Unit of the Reconnaissance Bureau, a full colonel, was with us in the submarine." (11)

Lee also declared he had heard from his comrades that 11 of the infiltrators had been shot "by their colleagues because they were not as strong and might have been captured." (12) He said, "we were told to commit suicide to avoid arrest" and that he tried to head to the DMZ but was caught while trying to get food from a farmhouse. (13)

Murder or Murder-Suicide. Eleven North Koreans had moved to a 330-meter-high mountain clearing approximately 8 kilometers southwest of where the submarine had run aground. At approximately 1700 on 18 September, ROK soldiers arrived at this hilltop clearing and found the bodies of the 11 North Koreans. Ten of the bodies were side by side, lined up in a row, while one body (that of a colonel) was off to the side a short distance away; the colonel's pistol was still in his holster. All of the bodies were dressed in civilian clothing and white tennis shoes. The ROK Army reported that all of these North Koreans died from a gunshot in the head at close range. Probably one or more of the SOF soldiers had shot the 11 North Koreans and then fled, or it is possible that one of the 11 infiltrators shot his comrades and then shot himself. The dead North Koreans were the submarine captain, crewmembers, and the Vice Director of the Maritime Department, while the eleventh was the colonel who was the Director of the Maritime Department of the REBU.

Head North. At this point, the remaining North Korean infiltrators had no intention of surrendering, which left only one option: fight their way back north to the DMZ and the Fatherland. From 19 through 30 September, 11 more North Koreans died in firefights with the ROK Army. Every week or so, Korean television stations would broadcast the results of the latest firefight and show ROK soldiers carrying bloodied white sheets and several makeshift wooden coffins containing the bodies of the infiltrators out of the woods.

On 19 September, ROK soldiers killed seven North Koreans in three separate firefights. Three North Koreans dressed in jeans, T-shirts, civilian jackets, and tennis shoes died at approximately 1000 on a mountain south of Kangnung. At 1400, the South Koreans spotted three more infiltrators and a firefight ensued; one infiltrator died during the firefight and two others later died of their wounds. Then at 1600, another firefight resulted in the death of another infiltrator and the wounding of one ROK soldier.

On 21 and 22 September, two more North Korean infiltrators were killed in a firefight. Between 23 and 30 September, two more infiltrators died in another firefight.

On 22 September, the ROK Navy towed the Sango submarine to the port of Tonghae. They conducted a thorough examination for intelligence purposes.

Political Actions and Rhetoric. On 20 September 1996, then President of the ROK Kim Young Sam said, "this is an armed provocation, not a simple repeat of infiltration of agents of the past." He declared that any further provocation against South Korea would bring a "real possibility of war." (14)

The DPRK responded:

"As far as a competent organ of the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces knows, the submarine encountered engine trouble and drifted south, leaving its crew with no other choice but to get to the enemy's land, which might cause armed conflict." (15)

On 1 October 1996, Choi Duk Keun, a South Korean diplomat, was assassinated in Vladivostok, Russia. His death came shortly after North Korea threatened to retaliate for the killings of the evading infiltrators in South Korea; poison found in his body was the same type as that carried by the North Korean infiltrators. (16)

According to the South Korean newspaper Joong-ang Daily News in mid-October, the ROK Government had selected strategic targets for possible attack if North Korea conducted further provocations. (17)

Continuing Pursuit of Infiltrators. From October through 5 November, the ROK Army pursued three remaining infiltrators who were moving north toward the DMZ. More than likely, there was a two-man team and another infiltrator traveling alone. Lee Kwang Soo, the only captured infiltrator, stated he believed the remaining three infiltrators were "specially trained and fit" and had already crossed the DMZ into North Korea.

On 5 November, the two infiltrators died in a firefight. A South Korean motorist had spotted them as they crossed the highway. The motorist immediately called the police and the chase was on. The ROK Army picked up the infiltrators' trail near Inje, in Kangwon Province, approximately 20 kilometers south of the DMZ and 100 kilometers north of Kangnung. At approximately 2230, the North Koreans spotted the ROK soldiers approaching on Mount Hyangro and opened fire. There were three separate exchanges of gunfire before the ROK soldiers finally killed the North Koreans. Before their deaths, the North Koreans managed to kill 3 ROK soldiers and wound another 14 with grenades and gunfire. These two infiltrators were killed almost 50 days after their submarine had run aground.

These North Koreans wore ROK uniforms and their weapons included M16 rifles, handguns, and grenades. ROK soldiers also found three pocket notebooks on the infiltrators, one of which contained a crude map of their 49-day escape. One of the notebooks was a diary that described the infiltration mission and how the submarine went aground. This diary also had these descriptions of the infiltrators' escape and evasion (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Diary Entries Describing the Infiltrators' Escape and Evasion

[] "Dynamited the submarine and dispersed after going ashore."

[] "Killed one enemy Sept. 21. Moved south."

[] "Passed Chinkogae Pass Oct. 4."

[] "Punished three residents at 2.20 p.m. Oct. 8 on a hill."

[] "Detected by a civilian vehicle while crossing a road Oct. 16. Crossed a reservoir."

[] "Reached Yangku Bridge Oct. 19. Search troops everywhere. Seized food from an old house."

[] "Came across and killed an enemy driver Oct. 22," (Note, this refers to the strangulation death of a lone ROK soldier by two of the infiltrators. The ROK soldier was off duty in the woods "collecting bush clovers.)

[] "Passed a bridge Oct. 23."

[] "Passed Hankyeryong Pass Oct. 23. Took a rest at a farm."

[] "Crossed a military road at a point overlooking the town of Inje Oct. 24."

According to Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., author and expert on the North Korean military, the last infiltrator, Li Chul Jin, escaped to North Korea. (18)

In mid-November, a New York Times reporter in Seoul wired back to his paper that--"a surge of tension; fears of further military provocations or even war; stalling of the engagement process; a growing number of hungry North Korean peasants who can count on little international help; and a reminder that it is hard to find a place more dangerous and unpredictable than the Korean peninsula." (19)

Aftermath. Of the 26 North Korean infiltrators, 1 was captured, 11 were murdered or died from a murder-suicide, 13 were killed in firefights with the ROK Army, and 1 reportedly escaped back to North Korea. The infiltration led to a 49-day manhunt from 18 September through 5 November when ROK soldiers killed the last two infiltrators.

On 29 December, a North Korean official issued an official apology:

"The spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK is authorized to express deep regret for the submarine incident in the coastal waters of Kangnung, South Korea, in September 1996 that caused the tragic loss of human life. The DPRK will make efforts to ensure that such an incident will not recur and will work with others for durable peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula." (20)

On 30 December, the ROK Government returned the cremated remains of the infiltrators to North Korea at Panmunjon.

The ROK military conducted an investigation on how the North Koreans were able to infiltrate the coastline so easily. A ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff report resulted in punishment of 20 ROK officers and soldiers for "negligence of duty." (21) The report cited the failures of the Army and Navy in detecting the submarine infiltration and the lack of speed of the military response to the infiltration. The investigation also resulted in a ROK lieutenant general and major general being relieved of their positions.

Lee Kwang Soo, the only captured infiltrator, remained in South Korea. He became an instructor for the ROK Navy.


The North Korean submarine infiltration was a "normal" spying mission that on this occasion turned into disaster. The incident should make it clear to all observers of the DPRK's continuing preparations for war and their long-standing goal to reunite the two Koreas someday either by political trickery or force, if necessary.

The 1996 infiltration incident demonstrates that North Korean SOF units and soldiers are tough, well trained, and loyal, and they will be fanatical fighters on the battle-field. The North Korean SOF conducts realistic, hands-on training. These Communist SOF soldiers will not surrender in battle, but will try to take as many South Korean and U.S. soldiers with them to death.

General Leon J. LaPorte, USFK Commanding General, stated in an interview that North Korea's SOF is the largest in the world and is the key element in the Communist state's "asymmetric" warfare strategy. (22) In a wartime scenario, the North Korean high command will probably attempt to infiltrate thousands of SOF soldiers into South Korea to cause as much death and havoc as possible. ROK and U.S. forces, regardless of whether they are combat arms or support troops, should be aware of this threat and be ready.


(1.) Bermudez, Joseph S., Jr., North Korean Special Forces, Second Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998), page 8.

(2.) Ibid., pages 3, 215.

(3.) Ibid., page 163.

(4.) Ibid., page 161.

(5.) Ibid., page 162.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Oberdorfer, Don, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997), page 388.

(9.) Ibid., page 387.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Ibid., page 389.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) The Korea Herald, "Captured Agent Says N. Korea Building Sub for Infiltration," October 1996, page 1.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) Nanto, Dick K., Report for Congress: Chronology of Provocations, 1950-2003 (Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress, 2003), page 16.

(17.) Oberdorfer, page 390.

(18.) Bermudez. page 219.

(19.) Oberdorfer, page 391.

(20.) The Korea Herald, "N.K. Apologizes for Sub Incident," 30 December 1996, page 1.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Gertz, Bill, and Scarborough, Rowan, "Inside the Ring," The Washington Times, 2003.

Major Harry P. Dies, Jr., served as Operations Officer, Combined Intelligence and Operations Center, C/J2, Combined Forces Command/ USFK, during the 1996 submarine incident. He has served in South Korea and Germany, and deployed to Kuwait in 1998 during Operation DESERT FOX. He is currently the Chief, Intelligence Division, G2, First U.S. Army, Fort Gillem, Georgia. MAJ Dies earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and has a Master of Arts degree from Webster University in Missouri. Readers may contact the author via E-mail at and telephonically at (404) 469-4386 or DSN 797-4386.
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Author:Dies, Harry P., Jr.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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