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Winter Olympics visitors flocking to see historic North Korean submarine

Damaged North Korean submarine tells story of conflict
One of the last major flashpoints between North and South Korea happened just over 20 years ago very close to where the Olympics are being held in Gangneung, South Korea. Reid Fiest takes us to the scene where a North Korean sub crash on an espionage mission, and is now on display.

As thousands watch the ice events at the Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, few have any idea the area was the stage for a critical flashpoint in relations with North Korea just over 20 years ago.

About a 30-minute drive from the venues sits a red and green North Korean submarine displayed along the rocky coast at Unification Park. Guide and translator Sin Woo Park says it’s attracting a lot of visitors.

READ MORE: Meet the Canadian in charge of patrolling the Korean DMZ

“They are interested in North Korea very much these days,” Park said.

It’s a rare chance to see something from the closed regime.

A view inside a North Korean sub that was seized by South Korea after a spying mission went wrong.
A view inside a North Korean sub that was seized by South Korea after a spying mission went wrong. Reid Fiest / Global New

Tourists can crawl inside the cramped vessel, which seems too small to house more than two dozen crew tasked with espionage.

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In September 1996, three of the crew made it to shore to survey the area. As they tried to make their way back to the sub, the water got rougher. They asked for the sub to come closer, but the captain lost control and hit the rocks.

READ MORE: More than 1,000 North Koreans defect every year. It’s dangerous but here’s how they do it

“This submarine crashed at the rock, and they tried to escape from the submarine and they land on this place,” Park explained.

“They tried to get back to North Korea.”

The North Korean submarine’s propeller damage is still visable.
The North Korean submarine’s propeller damage is still visable. Reid Fiest / Global News

With a broken propeller and a caved-in hull, the crew split up in an attempt to save their lives.

Eleven crewmen were killed by their fellow soldiers as punishment for their failures. Thirteen others were killed by South Korean military forces over the course of a two-month manhunt. Only one survived, Li Gwang Su. Shortly after the incident, he defected from the North and joined the South Korean military.

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He publicly contradicted the North’s explanation of the incident in a 1996 interview. 

“I was a participant. It’s a lie that the submarine was on a training mission. I was a witness to the whole thing,” Su said through a translator.

“It was on a surveillance mission.”

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The submarine is now a major tourist attraction along the coast. Some hope the cooperation between North and South Korea during the games will mean the sub is the last example of conflict in the peninsula.

READ MORE: North Korea winning diplomatic games at Winter Olympics

“It felt like there was harmony and peace going on, so I had a high hope for the future and that’s why I came down here to see what happened before,” visitor Jong Ja Kim told Global News.

Dutch tourist Henk Jongstra agreed.

“Maybe the Olympics will contribute something to peace and they will reunite and no more war.”