By yesterday evening 18 of them were dead, one was under interrogation, and an unknown number of survivors were holed up in the mountains, pursued by reconnaissance planes, helicopters and thousands of South Korean soldiers and police. On the face of it, the latest incident looks like just another skirmish in the Cold War stand-off between the Communist North and American- backed South, which has divided the Korean peninsula since 1953. But is it another sign of Pyongyang's aggression or is it a pathetic fiasco, a symptom of a country moving ever closer to paralysis?
In South Korea, a government statement described the incident as "not only a grave violation of the Armistice Agreement but also a direct threat to the national security of the Republic of Korea". President Kim Young Sam called it "a sort of armed provocation, not a simple dispatch of agents to the south".
But the operation bears all the hallmarks of an almighty cock-up rather than a cunning military exercise. The full details have yet to filter out through the South Korean information machine, but the submarine was apparently abandoned in a great hurry - guns and ammunition were left on board - and 12 of those who died appear to have shot themselves in a suicide pact in order to avoid capture. The captive, Lee Kwang Su, 31, told his interrogators the submarine lost power after leaving its home port of Wonsan, and drifted into South Korean waters. If it was on an espionage mission - to drop off or pick up undercover agents - it was spectacularly mishandled; television pictures yesterday showed the 110ft submarine bobbing helplessly among the rocks like a washed-up plastic bottle.
The fiasco has handed the government in Seoul a propaganda victory which reinforces its self-image as the victim of a deadly Communist aggressor. For 43 years, successive South Korean leaders have used the threat of aggression from the North as an excuse to impose Draconian restrictions on civil liberties. When South Korean commandos killed 200 pro-democracy protesters in Kwangju in 1980 it was the threat of an opportunistic North Korean attack which was used as the justification. Even under President Kim, the first Korean leader with a purely civilian background, the anti- Communist National Security Law has been used to imprison hundreds of trade unionists, academics and students peacefully opposed to the government.
But over the last year, the image of North Korea as a predatory bogeyman has become less convincing. After five years of economic collapse and disastrous floods last year, parts of the country are close to starvation. On a visit to the North Korean city of Sonbong last weekend, I saw rough, partially unsealed roads, rusting ships, decaying industrial plants and an antique power station. The million-strong Korean People's Army may, as Seoul frequently alleges, be salting away supplies of food and oil for itself, and there remains the niggling fear that it possesses a handful of chemical or even nuclear warheads within lobbing range of Seoul. But any North Korean attack would be a suicidal undertaking, carrying the risk of massive retaliation by South Korean and American forces.
"There is no foreign military presence in our country," Kim Jong U, Pyongyang's international trade envoy told The Independent in Sonbong on Sunday. "South Korea contains US troops and nuclear warheads. Outsiders are spreading the rumour that war will come from our country, but this is pure nonsense."
Sympathy for this view appears to be growing in the South, at least among the urban young; last month, 5,000 students took part in violent demonstrations at a Seoul university calling for reunification with the North. But the realities of reunification, which would be a complex and massively expensive undertaking, are something South Korean leaders prefer not to think about for the time being. Until they do, they will continue to portray incidents like the one this week as warmongering, rather than simply the case of a submarine - like a country - out of fuel, out of control and on the rocks.Reuse content