Does North Korea have kamikaze torpedo units?

A few weeks back, via Wired‘s Danger Room, I saw this truly weird story in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper about reports that the North Korean navy has a “human torpedo” unit that may have been involved in the sinking of the South Korea frigate, Cheonan. Yes, a human torpedo unit is what you think ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
568477_100601_2010042201074_02.jpg
568477_100601_2010042201074_02.jpg

A few weeks back, via Wired's Danger Room, I saw this truly weird story in South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper about reports that the North Korean navy has a "human torpedo" unit that may have been involved in the sinking of the South Korea frigate, Cheonan. Yes, a human torpedo unit is what you think it is: 

North Korea's human torpedo units belong to the 17th Sniper Corps and are deployed in both the East and West seas at the brigade level. The units are made up of elite soldiers, just like South Korea's UDT/SEAL teams, and were fed very well even when the rest of North Korea's people were starving due to economic hardships, according to defectors.

Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean poet who defected to South Korea, wrote recently on his blog that the human torpedo units "are treated better than submarine crew and their training centers around suicide bombing attacks." North Korea reportedly formed such squads in each branch of the military after leader Kim Jong-il said during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that no military in the world can defeat an army that can carry out suicide bombings.

A few weeks back, via Wired‘s Danger Room, I saw this truly weird story in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper about reports that the North Korean navy has a “human torpedo” unit that may have been involved in the sinking of the South Korea frigate, Cheonan. Yes, a human torpedo unit is what you think it is: 

North Korea’s human torpedo units belong to the 17th Sniper Corps and are deployed in both the East and West seas at the brigade level. The units are made up of elite soldiers, just like South Korea’s UDT/SEAL teams, and were fed very well even when the rest of North Korea’s people were starving due to economic hardships, according to defectors.

Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean poet who defected to South Korea, wrote recently on his blog that the human torpedo units “are treated better than submarine crew and their training centers around suicide bombing attacks.” North Korea reportedly formed such squads in each branch of the military after leader Kim Jong-il said during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that no military in the world can defeat an army that can carry out suicide bombings.

But the human torpedoes not only use suicide bombing tactics but also launch attacks using semi-submersible vessels equipped with light torpedoes or other explosives, which are fired or placed on their intended targets at close range.

It seemed a little like one of the many too-weird-to-be-true stories that filter out through the South Korean media, but I see that in this recent interview, a former North Korean submarine helmsman captured in 1996 corroborates the existence of these units: 

Lee also said he heard about human torpedo units, explaining, “They belong to the sea sniper brigades of the East Sea and West Sea fleets. Each fleet has one suicide unit. They travel on the submarine in the beginning but, from a certain point they ride on the torpedo and direct it to its target. Torpedo carriers are told that they can escape, however, in reality it is very difficult.”

Yeah, I would imagine that might be difficult. 

I’m still skeptical, but more curious. Lee also has some interesting (though similarly uncorroborated) things to say about how a North Korean sub might have gotten into South Korean waters undetected and what Kim Jong Il’s motivations for the attack might be.

Hat tip: Asian Correspondent

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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