North Korean Submarine Helmsman Breaks 14-Year Silence

[imText1]Lee Kwang Soo is now 46. He is also the sole captured crew member from a Sango class submarine which ran aground on a South Korean beach during an espionage mission in September, 1996, triggering a lengthy manhunt in which a large number of people, both South and North Korean, died. After his arrest, Lee settled down in South Korea, receiving a Master’s degree from Kyungnam University in 2005. He has not made a single appearance in the South Korean domestic or international media for almost 14 years.

However, incredulous at the fact that suspicions keep arising in South Korea about the Cheonan investigation findings even after the presentation of clear evidence, and troubled by claims made by the National Defense Commission on May 28th that the Cheonan incident was a fabrication, Lee decided to break his silence in an interview with The Daily NK.

For security reasons, he met The Daily NK secretly in a Seoul hotel on May 31st. There, he offered his expert opinion, based on his service to the North Korean navy and what is now known as the General Bureau of Reconnaissance.

First, we discussed the submarines that Lee saw in his time in North Korea. “I have seen 130-ton Yeoneo class submarines several times,” he explained, refuting the North Korean claim to possessing no such vessels. “I received helmsman training for submarines from Romeo class down to midget subs; the Yeoneo class sub is a modified version of the Yugo class.”

“Yugo class submarines have a torpedo tube, but the Yeoneo class does not. Yeoneo class subs have a medium-sized torpedo fitted to both sides and are launched by applying an electrical charge.”

“The 4th Naval Squadron on Mayang Island, South Hamkyung Province, has a repairs center for submarines,” he continued. “When you enter the place, it feels like the home of North Korean submarines. Submarines are repaired according to the size of the problem: major, medium and minor repairs. In that place, I saw submarines from 130-tons up to Romeo class.”

According to Lee, North Korea categorizes submarines as large, medium, small and midget. A 130-ton vessel, he explained, is categorized as a small submarine, not a midget submarine, which is how it is categorized by the South Korean navy.

While he has never heard of North Korea preparing a catalogue to export either torpedoes or submarines, Lee says he did see some Cubans visit a submarine and hovercraft manufacturing plant next to Shinpo Dockyard in South Hamkyung Province, which he says is disguised as Bongdae boiler factory. When Lee asked the site personnel about the visitors, he was apparently told, “They are here to purchase submarines.”

Lee also said he heard about human torpedo units, explaining, “They belong to the sea sniper brigades of the East Sea and West Sea fleets. Each fleet has one suicide unit. They travel on the submarine in the beginning but, from a certain point they ride on the torpedo and direct it to its target. Torpedo carriers are told that they can escape, however, in reality it is very difficult.”

Next, Lee categorically rejected another National Defense Commission claim, that which relates to the capabilities of these small submarines and their torpedoes. “North Korea’s assertion that a 130-ton submarine cannot carry a 1.7-ton torpedo in a ‘C’ formation to attack and then retreat is false,” he said bluntly.

He explained, “For a 130-ton submarine to penetrate the West Sea by sailing alone through the East Sea and to return; that is impossible. However, if it travels with a command vessel disguised as a trawler, then even that is not difficult. If the command vessel enters West Sea coastal waters then deploys the submarine, it will be challenging for South Korea to spot. As the announcement of the joint investigation team suggested, North Korea must have disguised a vessel as a regular fishing boat then entered the coastal waters around Baengnyeong Island in order to launch the submarine.

Lee added that when he was in North Korea, he saw just such a command ship. Such vessels are stripped down to be able to hold small and midget submarines, he explained.

North Korea has a “command ship-subordinate ship” unit run by the General Bureau of Reconnaissance at Sepo-ri, Rakwon, South Hamkyung Province, he said. When Lee went there, he said he saw a complete camouflaged command ship built by North Korea, however, he heard it had technical problems and never saw it completed as he was dispatched to South Korea soon after in September, 1996.

Based on this knowledge, Lee had a hunch as soon as the Cheonan incident happened that it would turn out to have been the responsibility of a North Korean small submarine, because a torpedo fired by a larger submarine makes a noise which can reveal its location.

Lee explained more. “A torpedo fired from a submarine contains more than 1 ton of high explosives, and, therefore, when pushed out by the compressed air in the tube the noise created is significant. A torpedo is designed to be pushed out by compressed air and then the propellant used to spin the propeller. Therefore, firing a torpedo is possible, but easily detected. The most important condition for infiltration is secrecy, which means North Korea will not use any method that creates much noise.”

On an alternative possibility, that of the Cheonan being sunk by a mine, he explained, “The laying of an influence mine is extremely difficult, and the explosive power of a mine is more than 5 times that of a torpedo. So, judging by the destroyed Cheonan, the possibility of this being the cause is very low.”

In any case, Lee is totally convinced by the marking, “1-beon” on the torpedo drive shaft, saying it is a normal thing in North Korea and represents irrefutable evidence of his nation’s culpability.

He commented, “In North Korea, even torpedoes are repaired by hand. For maintenance, a torpedo needs to be disassembled then checked for defects, rust must be removed, and other maintenance done. When a torpedo is being disassembled, sometimes a part can be lost or confused with another part of another torpedo. That is why they mark them with numbers and assemble them accordingly. The same method is used when they repair the detonator on an influence torpedo. The torpedo detonator only weighs about three kilograms, yet still it is disassembled and reassembled. So, it must be numbered several times.”

“When numbering a submarine we generally use ‘ho’,” he added, “but for the repair of parts we use ‘beon’.

Lee is sure that North Korea felt confident of getting away with the sinking of the Cheonan, and he offered two reasons for this opinion. First, he pointed out that spotting a submarine infiltrating in either the East Sea or the West Sea is not easy.

For example, when The Daily NK asked Lee how many times he had entered South Korean waters before his last excursion to Gangneung in 1996, he was unsure, saying, “It is difficult to say.”

He added that, secondly, “North Korea was sure that finding evidence would be difficult so they must also have thought that feigning innocence would be possible. When South Korea finally salvaged the front and back halves of the sunken ship and found evidence using trawlers, they must have been taken aback.”

Lee stated, “In 1985, in the coastal waters around Yiwon, the collision of a ship and a submarine took place which sank the submarine. However, they could not retrieve the bodies from the submarine even though it was in shallow water; similar to the level from which South Korea salvaged a North Korean submarine off Sokcho in 1998. Therefore, based only on their own technological level, they believed that the perfect crime was possible.”

Lee believes the involvement of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance in all such missions is absolutely inevitable, and added compelling evidence of Kim Jong Il’s own involvement, too. “Day-to-day commands are issued by Major General Kim Young Chul,” he said, “but many processes require the approval of Kim Jong Il.

“When I was being sent to Gangneung, Kim Dae Sik, the chief of the Reconnaissance Bureau at the time, commanded all strategy and training,” he went on. “A few days prior to deployment, Kim visited me and read a hand-written letter from Kim Jong Il. He told me to ‘be successful and then return to base,’ and gave me foreign liquor. I believe this time would have been the same.”

Lee says he believes that the reason North Korea attacked the Cheonan was to “retaliate for the humiliation of the Daechung Naval Battle,” and speculated that Kim Jong Il was trying to display his authority to the military and public officials by taking revenge on South Korea. However, he added, “North Korea has no intention of occupying the West Sea and changing the Northern Limit Line (NLL). During my days in the then Reconnaissance Bureau, I never once heard anything about recovering the NLL. That is just an attempt to build up tensions; since they lost the naval battle they took revenge by submarine, which is their strength.”

Finally, Lee commented on public suspicions that North Korea might not have been responsible for the Cheonan sinking, calling it a source of consternation.

“I do understand,” he said, “that a person has the right to think freely, however, there are some parts I cannot understand. 46 South Korean soldiers have died, and they need to find the cause and punish those who are responsible, yet people seem only to be interested in doubting the government. This is a simple case that even the helmsman of North Korean submarine can understand, so why can’t general citizens understand this? I believe it is due to an excess of sympathy for North Korea in South Korean society.”