TOKYO -- In the second such incident in less than two years, South Korea captured a North Korean submarine off its coast. It is the type of vessel often deployed in spy missions, though the intentions and fate of the crew of this mission were not immediately known.
This seizure yesterday, which comes at a time when new South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has been taking a markedly softer line toward the hostile North than his predecessors, could complicate his policies of seeking engagement, exchanges and rapprochement between the two Koreas.
The 60-foot submarine, a Yugo-class miniature capable of carrying seven to 10 people, apparently got ensnared in a fishing net about 11.5 miles off the coast of Seokcho, not far from the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, but inside South Korean territorial waters, South Korean authorities said.
The crew members of the fishing boat spotted the submarine at 4: 30 p.m. Monday, lying partially submerged, and said they saw two or three people moving on its deck, trying to extricate it from the fishing net. The North Koreans waved at the fishermen, apparently as if to assure them that the submarine was South Korean, Kim In Yong, the captain of the fishing boat, told local television.
The submarine freed itself and began to sail north, but the fishing boat followed and reported the incident to authorities. Before the South Korean navy arrived, the submarine had turned belly-up in the sea, the captain said.
When South Korean helicopters and naval ships arrived, they fired an explosive into the water and demanded that the submarine surrender but received no response, according to local media reports. By about 7: 30 p.m., South Korean authorities had seized the vessel and bound it with rope to tow it to shore.
Authorities decided it was too dangerous to attempt to open the tightly sealed hatches by force and towed it to a naval base. The vessel was expected in port by noon today.
Park Jie Won, Kim's spokesman, confirmed that the sub was North Korean, but authorities said they had no further information about its crew.
North-South relations took a precipitous dive after the last North Korean submarine ran aground on a reef off Kangung, also in northeastern Korea, in September 1996, with a crew of 25 aboard. The crew escaped, triggering a nationwide manhunt that ended with five South Korean soldiers dead, three civilians killed and a mass suicide of 11 of the North Korean infiltrators. All but one of the 24 North Koreans perished.
Lee Kwang Soo, the only surviving North Korean from that mission, remains in South Korean custody and authorities were reportedly dispatching him to help negotiate with crew members of the submarine snared yesterday -- if they are still alive. There was wide speculation that they may have already committed suicide rather than be captured.
Still, South Korean authorities appeared to be taking a much more tolerant approach to the new submarine's arrival. "The authorities are of the opinion that this submarine was not meant for infiltration," said Defense Ministry spokesman Park In Yong. First, Park said, a mother boat usually lurks in the area to oversee spy operations but no such North Korean vessel was spotted this time. Second, the Yugo, a smaller vessel than its predecessor, is lightly armed -- with only machine guns.