Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Korean Naval History: The Sinking of the ROKN Corvette Cheonan and a Captured North Korean Sang-O Class Submarine

During our time on the Peninsula, we have had several opportunities to visit sites that are important reminders to our Republic of Korea hosts of the threat posed by their bellicose neighbor to the north.  This blog is a brief tour of two such sites.  The first is a memorial to the sinking of the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) ship Cheonan.  The Cheonan, a corvette-class ship, broke in two and sank in March of 2010 with the loss of 46 of its 104-man crew.  The site of the sinking was near the island of Baengnyeong, just south of the disputed maritime boundary in the Yellow (or West) Sea where there have been several clashes between the North and South going back decades.  The cause of the sinking was not immediately known, but a later international investigation led by the ROK determined that a  torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine was the cause of the ship's demise.  The second site, the Gangneung Unification Park, is a little less well known, largely because it is in a relatively remote area on the eastern side of the Peninsula and the incident it commemorates occurred almost 20 years ago.  The park contains a North Korean submarine captured during what is called the Gangneung submarine infiltration incident.  In September of 1996, a Sang-O class submarine attempted to pick up a North Korean reconnaissance team from the ROK coast line near the town of Gangneung, but ran hard aground.   The 26 men on the sub, including the reconnaissance team, decided to try to escape overland through the DMZ.  Before they scattered into the mountainous and rugged countryside, however, 11 were executed by their compatriots.  Meanwhile, a suspicious local Korean reported their presence to the authorities and the hunt was on.  ROK security forces conducted a massive manhunt to find the infiltrators over the course of 49 days, killing 12 and capturing a 13th.  One is believed to have escaped across the DMZ.  Twelve ROK military and four civilians were killed during the operation, and another 27 were wounded.  The North Koreans at first claimed the submarine had lost power and drifted ashore, but later apologized for the incident.


The memorial to the Cheonan is at the Pyongtaek naval base about 50 miles south-southeast of Seoul.  It includes the Cheonan itself, a patrol craft sunk during a 2002 skirmish, monuments, and a museum. 

Depiction of the 1999 skirmish along the disputed Yellow Sea boundary. 
Photograph of the incident.  The ROK Navy was the clear victor during this skirmish, sinking at least one North Korean patrol craft and damaging several others.  North Korean casualties were estimated anywhere from a few dozen to over 100.
A skirmish in 2002 left one ROK Navy patrol boat sunk.  It was raised and is now on display
Close-up showing the impact points of the rounds that struck the patrol craft.
Raising of the ROK patrol craft.
Photo of the shelling of the Yeonpyong Island in 2010.
Replica of the North Korean torpedo casing the ROKs discovered after the sinking of the Cheonan.  This was a key piece of the evidence presented by the South Koreans that a North Korean submarine was the culprit for the 2010 attack.
List of names of ROK Navy sailors killed during the Cheonan sinking.
The Cheonan.
Where the ship was ripped apart.  I'm no naval or explosives expert, but it seemed pretty clear the ship was destroyed by an external explosion.

 Gangneung Unification Park and the Sang-O Submarine

A wooden fishing boat used by North Koreans to defect.  In the background is a 3,400 ton decommissioned ROK Navy destroyer (Jeon Buk Ham) on display.  The ship was once part of the US Navy's inventory.

Interior of the Sango-O.  Awfully crowded space for 26 men.

Items recovered from the Sang-O incident on display in the park museum

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