North Korean Submarine Lands Near Gangneung Sparking Deadly 49-Day Manhunt

The 1996 Gangneung submarine infiltration incident occurred on September 18, 1996, near the South Korean town of Gangneung.

On September 15, a North Korean Sang-O class submarine submarine landed a three person special operations reconnaissance team on the shores near Gangneung. Their mission was to spy on the naval installations in the area and then return. The submarine made a failed attempt to collect the team on the 17th, and returned the following day. The submarine, however, ran aground in the attempt, and all efforts to try to make her free were in vain.

The crew then decided to destroy the sensitive equipment in the submarine and try to make it to the DMZ. The crew split up in several groups but one was soon spotted by a civilian who became suspicious and alarmed the authorities, who quickly mobilized 40,000 soldiers, along with helicopters and search dogs.

A 49-day long manhunt ensured, from 18 September through 5 November, resulting in the capture or elimination of all the crew and members of the reconnaissance team, let one, who is believed to have made it back to North Korea. 16 South Korean soldiers and civilians died and 27 were wounded. Of the 26 North Korean infiltrators, 1 was captured, 11 were murdered by the other members or died from a murder-suicide, 13 were killed in firefights with the ROK Army, and 1 reportedly escaped back to North Korea.

The submarine was salvaged and towed to a naval base for investigation. One captured crewmember, the submarine's helmsmen, Lee Kwang Soo, gave in after much interrogation and revealed much of the plans. He later became an instructor in the South Korean Navy.

North Korea was at first reluctant at taking responsibility and claimed that the submarine had suffered an engine failure and had drifted aground, but issued an official apology on December 29. The following day, the remains of the infiltrators were returned to North Korea.

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.”

— Harry P. Dies, Jr.

North Korea formally apologized Sunday for an international incident in which one of its spy submarine invaded South Korean waters in September.

In a statement from a foreign ministry spokesman, North Korea expressed "deep regret" and vowed to "make efforts to ensure that such an incident will not recur."

U.S. President Bill Clinton, who monitored the situation closely and sent U.S. officials to help negotiate an end, released a statement Sunday saying he welcomes the apology as a significant development that he hopes will lead to "the reduction of tensions on the Korean peninsula."

"I am pleased that Pyongyang has pledged to prevent the recurrence of such an incident and has expressed its willingness to work with others for durable peace and stability on the peninsula," the statement read.