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.
“They are interested in North Korea very much these days,” Park said.
It’s a rare chance to see something from the closed regime.
Tourists can crawl inside the cramped vessel, which seems too small to house more than two dozen crew tasked with espionage.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”