N. Korea’s Recon Brigade Suspected in Attack on Ship
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Growing evidence points to the likely involvement of North Korea’s elite special operations Reconnaissance General Bureau in the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan on March 26.
The Pohang-class corvette was destroyed in the western waters off the disputed sea border with North Korea by the force of an explosion that apparently came from below the boat, sometimes referred to as bubble-jet effect or a noncontact explosion, Seoul officials have said. The focus of the investigation now appears to be narrowing to either a “human torpedo” or a torpedo launched from a midget submarine or semi-submersible under the command of the bureau.
The Reconnaissance General Bureau is North Korea’s lead intelligence collection and covert action arm. Not only does it include infiltration operations into the south, but it conducts covert operations such as assassination, kidnapping and sabotage.
Joseph Bermudez, who wrote “North Korean Special Forces,” the definitive book on the subject, said the bureau has a long history of doing Pyongyang’s dirty work and has recently been growing in influence and power.
“Up until recently, the North Korean agencies involved in intelligence and special operations were divided between the Army and the party,” Bermudez said. However, with the rise of the military within North Korea, the bureau has been “assuming greater and greater power.”
Intelligence agencies and assets have recently undergone a reorganization in North Korea, Bermudez said. “The Reconnaissance Bureau became the Reconnaissance General Bureau and has assumed the responsibilities of many of the intelligence operations that were formerly under the control of the party.”
The bureau has naval, ground and air elements. It was responsible for the grounding of a Sango-class midget submarine off the east coast of South Korea in 1996. The occupants committed suicide.
If the recent attack on the Cheonan was most likely the handiwork of the bureau, then the lead actors behind the attack were most likely O Kuk-ryol, vice director of the National Defense Commission, which oversees the bureau, and Kim Kyok-sik, the Fourth Corps commander. O is a confidant of North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-il.
“He is very aggressive, very dedicated, very firm supporter of Kim Jong-il. He knows his job and knows how to cause pain and suffering,” Bermudez said.
If it was a bureau-initiated attack, it means the attackers probably operated out of ports in the Fourth Corps area of operation, said Bruce Bechtol, author of the book “Red Rogue.”
“If the attack was conducted by the Recon Bureau, it could have been a Sango or Yugo [midget submarine],” Bechtol said. “It also could have been a semi-submersible or a human-driven torpedo,” he said.
Bermudez agrees that given the shallow depth of the water in the area, a torpedo attack might have come from a semi-submersible vessel rather than a submarine.
“I would certainly rule out a Romeo submarine; however, a Sango or Yugo are within the realm of possibility. The vast majority of the Navy’s and intelligence agencies’ submarines are capable of carrying torpedoes and sea mines as are some of the intelligence agencies’ semi-submersible infiltration landing craft,” he said. “Torpedoes carried by these smaller craft would necessarily be smaller in size.”
North Korea’s Midget Subs
North Korea has an unknown number of operational 260-ton Sango-class midget submarines and 90-ton Yugo-class midget coastal submarines used for infiltration, anti-surface warfare and mine laying. Both can carry torpedoes. A Sango was captured in 1996 off the east coast of South Korea, and several Yugos have been lost in operations against the South, the most recent in 1998.
There are about 100 high-speed semi-submersible infiltration crafts of different sizes and shapes at North Korea’s disposal. They have a low radar cross section and squat in the water at high speeds.
Some of the most famous are locally built Cluster Osprey-class semi-submersible saboteur infiltration launches. In service since 1985, the vessels are used for sabotage and infiltration teams.
North Korea also has seven U.S.built high-speed racing boats procured from U.S. shipbuilder Fountain Powerboat Industries in 1993. The agent handling the sale was subsequently indicted in 1998 under the Trading with the Enemy Act. The boats have a maximum speed of 100 knots with 2,000 break horsepower engines and are used for infiltration missions.
Earlier this year, South Korea’s military intelligence warned of the threat of human-torpedo attacks from North Korea, Bechtol said, “which was pledging revenge for its defeat in a sea skirmish in November last year.”
“Human torpedoes are underwater suicide squads who operate torpedoes equipped with a mini motor or engine to sneak up to a target and blow it up,” he said.
Although the bureau’s involvement in the Cheonan attack is still in question, there is no question the bureau sent two men to Seoul to assassinate a North Korean defector this month.
South Korea announced April 19 that it had arrested two North Korean agents working for the Reconnaissance General Bureau who had been sent to Seoul to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the North Korean Workers’ Party who defected to the South in 1997. He is the most senior North Korean official ever to defect.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service identified the men as Kim Myong-ho and Dong Myong-gwan, both majors in the bureau. Both were under orders from Kim Yong-chol, a high-level bureau official, to assassinate Hwang. They entered South Korea from Thailand earlier this year posing as defectors.
“Killing Hwang has been a longtime goal on North Korea’s part. They will continue trying to get him. That won’t change,” Bermudez said.
The assassination attempt and the Cheonan incident point to the possibility North Korea will conduct additional covert operations against South Korea in the coming months, Bermudez said.
And despite the increase in violence, there are few who believe Seoul will launch a punitive strike against Pyongyang, fearing an escalation in violence.
“One plausible scenario is that they do nothing since neither the U.S. nor South Korea has ever taken military action in response to previous armed NK attacks due to the fear of the situation escalating to a war,” said Bruce Klingner, a Korean military specialist at the Heritage Foundation.
“An alternative to not doing a military response but doing ‘something’ is to take it to the United Nations to demand actions” against North Korea in the form of more sanctions, he said.
NORTH KOREAN PROVOCATIONS
1968: A platoon of North Korean soldiers is stopped short of reaching the Blue House, the South Korean presidential residence, and after an intense fire fight only one North Korean soldier survives.
1968: North Korea captures the Pueblo, a U.S. Navy reconnaissance ship.
1972: A North Korean bomb detonates prematurely at South Korea’s National Cemetery before the scheduled arrival of the South Korean president.
1976: A U.S. soldier is killed in Panmunjom by North Koreans wielding ax handles.
1983: A North Korean bomb kills several members of the South Korean presidential Cabinet in Rangoon.
1987: A North Korean bomb detonates on KAL flight 858 killing 115 people.
1996: A North Korean minisubmarine is captured along the east coast of South Korea.