A captured North Korean submarine sank Tuesday as it was being towed to port by South Korean authorities, plunging the mysteries of its mission and the fate of its crew onto the ocean floor under about 100 feet of water.
The South Korean navy planned to raise the 82-foot Yugo-class vessel from the seabed, where it lay sideways, its exterior undamaged, about 1 1/2 miles from a naval station in Tonghae, on the northeast coast. Military authorities were reportedly to decide today how and when to hoist the sub but warned that the process might take a day or two.
Meanwhile, the South Korean government appeared determined not to allow the incident to derail improving relations with the isolated and hostile North Korean regime.
"We will not abandon our 'sunshine policy,' " declared President Kim Dae Jung, referring to his strategy of seeking engagement and detente with the North while standing firm to deter any military aggression. "We will not overreact, but we will deal with this cautiously and firmly, depending on the result of the findings of an investigation."
Kim reportedly ordered intelligence officials to determine whether the sub incursion was a deliberate provocation by the North, a reconnaissance mission or simply the result of the damaged vessel's having drifted into nearby South Korean waters, where it was first spotted just 1 1/2 miles south of the border.
Kim was also shown on television saying, "We will not repeat the hasty actions of the previous government," a reference to the fury of the government of President Kim Young Sam over the September 1996 incursion of a spy sub whose crew came aground, triggering a long, deadly manhunt. It ended with 24 North Koreans and 13 South Korean soldiers and civilians dead. The incident caused a rupture in North-South relations until the North issued a rare apology.
The temperature of the rhetoric emanating from Seoul and the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Tuesday was considerably lower than in 1996. North Korea's official news media said the submarine had been "wrecked" while on a training mission; the South Korean government refrained from accusing the North of sending another spy sub--though private analysts insisted that there was no other rational explanation for its appearance off South Korea on Monday.
"That this submarine may have been in training is not persuasive," said military analyst Chi Man Won. "Training is done collectively, not by a single, isolated submarine. If it was in training, why did our military with so much modern equipment fail to locate other subs and their mother ship?"
Chi and Western analysts suggested that similar North Korean sub probes are probably sent into South Korean waters frequently but usually escape notice.
South Korean media reported that military authorities suspected the crew perished long before the sub sank. But there were contradictory reports about exactly what happened to the vessel, and scant details were offered as to how it came to sink while under tow.
The sub was spotted off the coast of South Korea about 4:30 Monday afternoon by a fishing boat whose crew reported seeing two or three people trying to extricate it from a fishing net in which it was snared. The captain of the boat told KBS state-run television that it did free itself and began to sail north but that it went belly-up even before South Korean naval ships arrived.
But South Korean television on Monday afternoon showed the sub with its conning tower above water, suggesting that it had not gone belly-up or had managed to right itself. And Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's leading newspaper, reported in today's editions that the sub was already partly underwater when the navy finally roped it in about 7:30 p.m. Monday.
South Korean authorities said the vessel, hatches closed, did not respond to explosions or orders to surrender or to other attempts to communicate, including hammering on the outside of its hull. Tuesday morning, they began towing it to port in Tonghae.
KBS television said the sub began to sink about 12 miles from Tonghae.
The Yugo-class sub can carry up to seven crew members, the Defense Ministry said. Defectors and captured North Korean agents have reported standing orders to commit suicide to avoid capture, and military sources speculated Tuesday that the crew members might have killed themselves or been executed by the captain or drowned if they decided to scuttle the vessel.
There was no sign of attempted escape from the sub, and searches found no crew in the water, authorities said. Naval officials told Korean media that they did not rule out the possibility that the sunken sub could be booby-trapped.
As the incident was unfolding, military officials from North Korea and from the United Nations Command, which administers the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, met in the demilitarized zone for scheduled talks on reducing tensions along the DMZ, the world's most fortified frontier.
Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.