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North Korea’s III-rated Submarine Incursion

“It was very easy to start a war in Korea. It was not so easy to stop it.”

Nikita Khruschev
[speech before the Bulgarian Pany leadership

On September 17, 1996 a 111 foot 330 ton North Korean Sang-o Class diesel submarine (SSK) ran aground on a rock off the South Korean coast during what turned out to be a disastrous mission marked by desperation and death. North Korea’s littoral submarine mission underscored a continuing of the North’s ongoing strategy of brinkmanship in dealings with both South Korea and other nations including the United States.

Mission Overview

The mission of the Sang-o Class submarine and embarked reconnaissance team was to conduct the following covert operations:

  • Reach the South Korean coast near Kangnung while remaining undetected and launch the embarked recon team.
  • Conduct reconnaissance of South Korean military facilities to collect information for subsequent operations. These operations include photo reconnaissance of the Kangnung airport and Youngdong power plant.
  • Make preparations for assassinating South Korean VIPs during South Korea’s national sports games scheduled for 7 October 1996 in Chunchun, Kangwon Province. Such preparations quite probably included establishing one or more secret caches of weapons for future special operations in the Kangnung area.
  • Recover the recon team and return to port while remaining undetected.


April 1996. U.S. President Bill Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young-sam propose talks in which the two Koreas would discuss officially ending their 1950-53 Korean War with a peace treaty. Washington and Beijing would participate in the talks as mediators. Talks begin between Washington and Pyongyang regarding the proposed meetings.

July-August 1996. Twenty-three crew members of a modified Sang–o Class SSK and the three members of the associated North Korean recon team complete the final two of five preparatory submarine coastal infiltration exercises. These operations along the North Korean coast simulated anticipated conditions in the Kangnung area.

13-15 September 1996. North Korea’s Committee on the Promotion of External Economic Cooperation (CPEEC) hosts an International Conference in the Free Economic and Trade Zone (FETZ) in the Rajin-Sonbong and Tumen River area of Northeast North Korea. Representatives from the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, Germany, Thailand, South Korea and the United Nations attend.

2000 13 September 1996. All members of the North Korean SSK crew and associated recon team pledge that they will fulfill their mission by reading a loyalty oath before Colonel General Kim Dae-shik, chief of the Reconnaissance Bureau.

0500 14 September 1996. The crew consisting of the Chief of the Operations Department, submarine crew members and associated recon team embark in a modified Sang-o Class SSK and sortie out of T’oejo port in South Hamgyong Province, North Korea. Their destination: Kangnung, South Korea-approximately 160 miles away. The SSK’s SOA is approximately four knots.

2000 15 September 1996. The submarine arrives off the coast of Kangnung, about 60 miles south of the DMZ, and launches the three-man recon team in South Korean Army uniforms on the coast of Kangnung.

2100 17 September 1996. The submarine runs aground on a rock off the coast of Kangnung while it is approaching shore to pick up the returning recon team. For almost three hours, the crew unsuccessfully attempts to free the grounded submarine.

235017 September 1996. North Korean forces abandon ship. All 23 crew members safely land ashore carrying all available arms and equipment and join the three-man recon team.

0100 18 September 1996. A South Korean civilian spots the North Korean submarine stranded on a rock and reports the sighting to police and military authorities.

18 September 1996. North Korean personnel line up and shoot 11 of the 23 North Korean submarine crew members.

1630 18 September 1996. Li Kwang-su, a crew member, is captured at Bojon-ri, Kangdong-myon, Kangnung City while trying to flee.

18 September 1996. South Korean troops discover the 11 dead North Korean military personnel at Mt. Chonghak near Kangnung. Initial evidence and subsequent information confirm that these personnel were killed by other North Korean infiltrators.

1930 September 1996. South Korean hunting troops exchange small arms fire with the fleeing North Korean personnel in a series of skirmishes. Eleven of the remaining fourteen North Koreans are shot to death in the areas of Dangyonggol and Mt. Chilsong near Kangnung. Ten South Korean soldiers are also killed in the fighting.

9 October 1996. The remaining North Koreans kill three South Korean civilians who were gathering mushrooms on Mt. Odae in Jinbu-myon, Pyongchang County.

Mid-Ocotber 1996. Two of the remaining three North Koreans are shot dead. One escapes.

20 September-7 October 1996. South Korea, the United States, Japan and the United Nations express outrage and concern over the North Korean submarine incident. Progress toward peace negotiations, economic discussions and most humanitarian aid is jeopardized.

12 November 1996. U.S. officials, including Ambassador James Laney, state that there will be no further peace overtures until North Korea apologizes for the sub’s incursion. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman tells Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency that North Korea “is compelled to interpret this as a revocation of the four-way talks”. He says North Korea now has no need to hear any explanation about the peace proposal.

9 December 1996. The United States, on behalf of Seoul, commences negotiations with North Korean representatives in New York to resolve the dispute. Meanwhile, millions of dollars of South Korean aid to North Korean flood victims is suspended pending an apology for the submarine incursion.

29 December 1996. North Korea expresses “deep regret for the submarine incident. .. that caused the tragic loss of human life”. North Korea said it “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”. While the South insisted the submarine was on a spy mission, the North insisted it accidentally drifted into South Korean waters on a routine training mission. Nevertheless, President Clinton welcomed the North Korean concession in the form of an apology by saying, “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”. Constructive resolution of the incident is viewed as one of the Clinton administration’s major foreign policy successes.

3 January 1997. A U.S.-led consortium resumes talks with Pyongyang toward a landmark nuclear pact with North Korea for building light-water nuclear reactors. South Korea is largely financing the reactors which were promised to North Korea in a 1994 agreement with the U.S. that halted Pyongyang’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

6 January 1997. The U.S. Treasury grants a license to Minneapolis-based Cargill, Inc., a giant grain company, to export 500,000 tons of food to famine-struck North Korea. This step is viewed as a warming in relations between the U.S. and North Korea following North Korea’s apology for the submarine incident.

12 January 1997. Even with improving relations following the submarine incident, U.S. foreign policy analysts continue to express concern on whether foreign aid will be enough to stabilize North Korea’s shaky and flood-ravaged economy. North Korea’s economic crisis and severe food shortage, which have worsened since 1990, still raise ongoing concerns over the stability of the Korean peninsula and East Asia as a whole.

Total casualties associated the incident at Kangnung were 10 South Korean military, 3 South Korean civilians and 24 North Korean personnel killed, 1 North Korean captured and 1 North Korean escaped. Of the 24 North Koreans killed, 11 of the 23 submarine crew members-including Kim Dong-won, Chief of the Naval Operation Captain Department-were lined up and shot during 18 September by their fellow comrades shortly after abandoning ship at about midnight on 17 September. The helmsman, Ensign Li Kwang-su, was captured by South Korean hunting troops on the evening of 18 September. South Korean troops discovered the bodies of his dead shipmates at Mt. Chonghak on September 18th, within 24 hours after the crew abandoned ship. Evidently the North Korean recon team along with some members of the submarine crew viewed these eleven crew members as an unaffordable mission liability.

Over the next 11 days between 19 and 30 September, South Korean troops tracked down and shot to death 11 of the remaining 14 North Koreans. On 9 October, one or more of the remaining three infiltrators shot to death three South Korean men (ages 45, 54 and 69) who were gathering mushrooms on Mt. Odae in Jinbu-myon, Pyongchang County-about 40 miles south of the North Korea/South Korea border. Two of the remaining three North Koreans were later shot to death. Ten South Korean soldiers died while hunting down the North Korean forces. Ensign Li Chul-jin, age 28, was the only North Korean who escaped.

The Sang—o Class Submarine (SSK)
North Korea has an estimated 16 Sang-o Class SSK’s with another four under construction as of July 1996 (Jane’s Fighting Ships 1996-97). Sang-o’s were probably reverse engineered from a Yugoslav design. The Democratic Republic of North Korea (North Korea) has a concentrated building program producing about six Sang-o’s per year. These SSKs are small by U.S. standards at about one-third the length (111.5 ft) and less than one-sixth the displacement (275 tons surfaced/330 tons submerged) of our World War Il fleet boats. The Sang-o Class’s typical complement is 2 officers and 12 enlisted. However, the crew was augmented by additional personnel including a three-man recon team for this mission to bring the sub’s complement to a total of 26.

Sang-os have a single diesel generator, motor and shaft that enables them to achieve 7-8 knots surfaced and 4 knots submerged. These SSKs have a nominal test depth of 500 feet (150 meters). Their limited propulsion constitutes a significant design liability amidst the especially strong tides and currents along the coast of the Korean peninsula. Sang-o SSKs have an estimated maximum operational endurance of 20 days at sea.
While most Sang-o SSKs probably carry mines or Russian Type 53-56 torpedoes in two 21 inch (533 mm) tubes, the submarine lost off Kangnung was specially modified for special operations. The torpedo room, originally designed to store four torpedoes, was modified into a room to accommodate additional personnel. The submarine also carried a 107mm anti-tank rocket launcher, a 75mm anti-tank rocket launcher, and 190 other weapons including M-26 hand grenades, M-16 rifles and numerous miscellaneous combat gear. This particular Sang-o SSK also was configured with a lock-out chamber hatch providing an underwater swimmer delivery capability.

Operational Notes

Technically, 23 of the 26 North Korean personnel assigned on the mission were submariners (2 supervisors and 21 crew members). The remaining three individuals were recon team members. The submariners ranged in rank from Captain Kim Dong-won (age 50)-the most senior and the Chief of the Naval Operations Captain Department-to ENS Pak Jong-Kwan (age 27)-the youngest individual assigned to the mission. The crew included Lieutenant Commander Shin Young-kil, the political officer. The average age of the crew was 33-very old by U.S. standards. Captain Kim Dong-won, Lieutenant Commander Shin Young-kil and Ensign Pak Jong-Kwan were among the 11 crew members shot by their countrymen shortly after abandoning ship.

At the time of the mission, the East Sea current was flowing northward at about 1 knot-away from the Kangnung coast. Contrast this fact with the subsequent North Korean official statement claiming the sub drifted over 60 miles to the south.

The Sang-o SSK never issued a distress call or SOS.

The Sang-o SSK reached the South while remaining submerged throughout the almost two day voyage. Contrast this submerged transit with the subsequent North Korean official statement claiming that the sub was on a “routine exercise in our own North Korean waters”. Of course, to the North Korean’s credit, they do not recognize the South Korean government as a legitimate government, and therefore, the entire Korean peninsula is, from the North’s vantage, their territorial waters.

The three members of the North Korean sniper team were dressed in South Korean Army uniforms.

Numerous propeller marks on the rock the sub grounded upon indicate that the main engine was operating normally while the crew was desperately trying to free the sub prior to abandoning ship. Contrast the propeller marks evidence with the North Korean statement that the incident was caused by “engine trouble”.

Before abandoning ship, the crew set fire to the engine room.

The North Korean forces did not, at any time, request assistance or show any sign of surrender.

The North Korean submarine’s homeport was T’oejo. Contrast this information from the captured crew member with the official Korean statement that Wonsan was the homeport.

By South Korean accounts, the North Korean submarine had more than 4000 items of 327 kinds of combat gear including weapons such as anti-tank rocket launchers, AK assault rifles and M-16 rifles (with serial numbers removed). Contrast this report with the North Korean statement that the sub had “only sniper rifles but no heavy weapons”.

Operations Analysis

The combination of the Sang-o SSKs limited propulsion, poor charts, a significant coastal current, and strong tides probably were contributing factors in the submarine running aground. Lack of bow thrusters or any other secondary propulsion capability further limited the Sang-o’s ability to free up its grounded stem. Details are not available as to whether attempts were made to alter the fore/aft trim and the sub’s ballast before opting to abandon ship. Also, there is no indication that the North Koreans used ship’s swimmers to attempt to free the SSK prior to abandoning ship. However, scuba fins, masks and diver’s tanks were among the gear found aboard the abandoned vessel.

Given the apparent reconnaissance mission, transport of the 75mm and 107mm anti-tank rocket launchers initially seems excessive. However. the largest of these weapons-the Chinese (PRC) 107mrn Type 63 Multiple Rocket Launcher (mountain model) can be broken down into man-pack sizes-although it weighs 618 pounds when fully assembled. Each 107mm rocket weighs another 42 pounds. [Jane’s Weapon Systems.] Since significant modifications to the SSK had to be made including allowances for compensation and trim, successful transport of these weapons must have been a vital part of the intended mission. These weapons would probably have been staged ashore for future operations if the mission had been accomplished while remaining undetected.

Insights into North Korean Submarine Doctrine

The configuration and usage of this Sang-o Class SSK demonstrates one possible North Korean view of submarine operations is as a stealth seaward transport capability for the Army. Heavy Army influence on the Navy would result in a naval doctrine that primarily focuses on littoral operations.

North Korea Background

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a communist nation located on the northern half of the Korean peninsula. The heavily industrialized centralized socialist economy has had a declining GNP since 1990 due to 26 percent defense spending and poor economic policies. The economic crisis is worsened by serious floods and famine. North Korea’s unique Juche personality-cult ideology built around the Leader, Kim Jung 11, emphasizes North Korea’s radical self reliance and isolation from the outside world. Since North Korea’s imploding economy stands as a constant contradiction to Jucbe ideology, their leadership walks a tightrope in trying to both survive as a nation while retaining political power by maintaining the illusion that it needs no outside help.

Timing of the Incident

The timing of the submarine mission to coincide with hosting the international conference in the Free Economic and Trade Zone reflects the ongoing contradictory principles of the ever-victorious socialist revolution based upon Juche and the dire need for foreign investment and humanitarian aid for short-term survival. The submarine mission may be viewed as only another in a long series of incidents designed to isolate the South while reaching out elsewhere within the international community. While such policies may be illogical from a Western world view, Kim Jung Il’s purposeful strategy easily might accommodate such apparent contradictions.

International Response

20 September 1996. President of the U .N. Security Council: “The UNSC expresses deep concern over North Korea’s latest infiltration of its armed agents into South Korea. The armistice agreement on the Korean peninsula must be maintained.”

20 September 1996. U.S. State Department spokesman: “North Korea’s act of infiltrating armed agents into South Korea is a grave provocation.”

20 September 1996. Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan: “It is a matter of sincere regret that such an incident took place this time, and North Korea must suspend such activities immediately.”

20 September 1996. New York Times: “The North Korean submarine incursion is an unbelievable incident, or an anacronic incident that can appear in a movie.”

20 September 1996. Le Sbibdnya: “The infiltration of North Korean armed agents is an incident which confirms that South and North Korea are still under wartime conditions.”

22 September 1996. New York Times: .. In case North Korea continues provocations, the appeasement policy of the U.S. government toward North Korea will cool down rapidly.”

2 October 1996. Yomiuri: “Since last July, North Korea has been strengthening its southward infiltration capabilities by newly organizing submarine units which are capable of carrying out such special missions as reconnaissance and special warfare.”

4 October 1996. Asia Week: “The infiltration incident this time is the 14th of its kind since 1990, and as far as North Korea is concerned the termination of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula is still remote.”

7 October 1996. Time International: “As the submarine incursion this time shows, North Korea is an unpredictable and dangerous country.”

North Korean Response

13 September 1996. Armed Forces Ministry: “On September

13 our troops sailed out of Wonsan port aboard a submarine, but while they were engaged in a routine exercise in our own waters, the submarine began to drift due to engine trouble, and it finally ran aground on a rock off the Kangnung shore.”

23 September 1996. Armed Forces Ministry: “After the submarine ran aground on a rock our soldiers had no choice but to go ashore, and it seems that the armed conflict took place because it was on enemy territory, but our submarine was carrying only sniper rifles but no heavy weapons.”

27 September 1996. Korean Central News Agency: “We, as the injured party, have the right to pay back the damage with hundred-fold and thousand-fold retaliation.”

28 September 1996. North Korean Mission to the U.N.: “Because we are the injured party, we have the right to retaliate, and it will be hundred and thousand-fold retaliation.”

2 Octpber 1996. Colonel Pale lm-su, North Korea’s chief representative, during a meeting at the DMZ in Panmunjom: “We will take retaliatory actions against the South, but the U.S. must not intervene. If the U.S. intervenes, we will take retaliatory actions also against the U.S.”

11 November 1996. Foreign Ministry spokesman to the Korean Central News Agency: North Korea is “compelled to interpret this as a revocation of the four-way talks.”


Though North Korea’s apology for the incident at Kangnung was good news, concern still remains that starvation in the North could destabilize both North Korea and East Asia as a whole. To what extent foreign aid will stabilize North Korea remains to be seen. Their economic crisis runs so deep that, in the long run, some sort of catastrophic collapse remains a distinct near term possibility. Meanwhile, firm-but-patient U.S. diplomacy, in the aftermath of North Korea’s ill-fated submarine incursion, will continue in an effort to establish a framework for peace talks between North and South Korea. Resolution of the nearly half-century-old Korean conflict would be a major step toward the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea.

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