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Inside North Korea’s Sub Force

June 3, 2010

Shin Joo Hyun at the Daily NK recently interviewed a captured North Korean submarine veteran, who apparently has now assimilated into South Korean society. Lee Kwang Soo has some interesting insights on his former country’s submarine arm which you may not have heard. He has decided to speak out because of growing doubts in the South about the evidence of their own eyes, that the North really did sink the corvette Cheonan causing the death of 46 sailors.

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…”

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.

Lee also rejects NK’s claim that small submarines cannot carry the type of 1.7-ton torpedo used to sink the Cheonan:

“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.

An interesting notion to New Wars is the use of motherships to ferry the small subs into attack range. This blog has discussed motherships for corvettes, FACs, UAVs, and even the Aegis missile radar, but support ships for midget subs make much sense as well:

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.

The former NK sailor also contends that the torpedo was fired by minisubs, which apparently launch the weapons based on their own inertia. A larger submarine would use compressed air to fire its weapons, which is very noisy and easily detectable. He also suggested because of the immense explosive power of a naval mine, this was probably not the weapon used to sink the Cheonan, but the discovered torpedo.

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.

The question then leads to “why sink the Cheonan”? Lee explains that because of the near-undetectability of small submarines, the NK leader thought he could get away with it. In other words “the perfect crime”. The initial silence from the North suggests this, and their underestimation of the South’s technical prowess has proved their undoing.

Finally, Lee is astonished at the lack of outrage stemming from the Korean public over the deaths of their countrymen, which he concludes must be an overabundance sympathy toward the bully regime, something not uncommon in the West these days:

“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.”


5 Comments leave one →
  1. D. E. Reddick permalink
    June 8, 2010 11:40 pm

    Here’s the story of the sinking of USS Underhill (DE-682) by an Imperial Japanese Kaiten human torpedo on July 24, 1945. Note the similarities between the sinking of USS Underhill and what happened to ROKS Cheonan, with both ships having been broken in half. This is from the Combined Fleet website and its Imperial Japanese Navy page, or that page for the Nihon Kaigun.


    Sinking of the USS Underhill (DE-682)

  2. Chuck Hill permalink
    June 4, 2010 1:55 pm

    Probably too small for a 130 ton mini-sub, but a stern trawler in many ways can look like a mini-dock ship, with a stern ramp for launching. With a little addaptation could work for “human torpedoes.”

  3. D. E. Reddick permalink
    June 3, 2010 12:58 pm


    A small version of such a dockable mothership was found by either South Korea or Japan following a surface naval battle with it. It sank, but was raised and an extremely small submersible vessel was found inside. I cannot recall if it was a human torpedo (like the WW-II Imperial Japanese Kaiten) or something a little larger and more capable while remaining a midget-sub. It certainly wasn’t anything like the size of the Iranian Ghadir class minisubs (a picture of which Mike has provided, and which are based on NorK designs such as the Yeoneo class).

    Planeman has an updated sketch of the 130-ton Yeoneo class minisub in posting # 302 at the following link. You can see via Planeman’s cutout drawing that the whole sub is literally built around the torpedo launch tubes (which take up 1/3rd of the vessel’s length).

  4. leesea permalink
    June 3, 2010 12:12 pm

    No relation to Lee above! However, following on Mike’s comment about motherships, IF the NORKs had a small semi-submersible dock ship? It could transport and support ther small subs further into international waters. It would also be more identifiable and targetable.


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