The Yugo-class midget sub had been towed to the South Korean part of Tonghae after it became tangled in fishing nets on Monday while apparently engaged on an espionage mission. On Wednesday it sank as South Korean naval ships tried to haul it alongside the dock for inspection. After being floated yesterday, television news in the South reported that an unspecified number of bodies had been found in the hull.
They were found lying in just 30 inches of water, according to Korea Broadcasting System, suggesting that they may have asphyxiated or committed suicide rather than drowned. North Korean troops are trained to commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured. When 26 sailors and commandos were stranded in a similar incident in 1996, most of them were shot by one of their own officers. The KBS report was not immediately confirmed by the South Korean defence ministry.
The submarine's entanglement in mackerel nets in South Korean waters 11 miles off the east coast was only the beginning of a series of misadventures. After sinking in 100 feet of water at the mouth of the dockyard, the sub was refloated yesterday using four huge balloons.
The job of prising it open was complicated by the fear of booby traps. Inside, plastic containers for soft drinks made in South Korea were discovered, suggesting that members of the crew had recently spent time as infiltrators in the South.
"What was found in the sub was contrary to a North Korean claim that the sub was missing while on a routine training mission after experiencing mechanical problems," KBS said.
But the South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung, continued to play down the incident and to emphasise the importance of co-operation with the communist North. "As the intrusion into our territorial waters by a North Korean submarine shows, military tensions are continuing," President Kim said in a speech marking the 48th anniversary yesterday of the alleged North Korean attack which provoked the three year-long Korean War.
"However, while maintaining a firm posture, the newly established government of the people will protect peace and co-operation with the North according to a flexible North Korea policy."