SEOUL, June 23: A North Korean intruder submarine docked on Tuesday off the heavily-guarded Tonghae naval base guarded by an armada of South Korean gunboats and armed commandos.
``The submarine was docked offshore, surrounded by a fleet of boats,'' said a spokesman for South Korea's joint chiefs of staff (JCS) in Seoul.
A team of navy frogmen was on stand-by in the base before prising open the sub'shatch, he said. But military officials in this eastern navy base refused comment on their operations.
However, a military officer said all crew members aboard the submarine are likely to be dead, as sonar probes have not picked up movement in the submarine.
``Though the hull is not damaged, it is listing at about 60 degrees and about four-fifth of it is under water. It probably means that the inside is filled with water and that the crew perhaps drowned or suffocated due to lack of oxygen,'' Lim Jong Chon, the operation chief of the joint chiefs of staff said.
Officials decided not to enter the submarineuntill it reaches port, due to it being heavily trapped at the hatch or due to the crew being heavily armed.
``However it cannot be excluded that the crew may have escaped before the navy was called to the scene,'' Lim said and added that in consideration of that possible scenario, preparations along the coast are under way.
The submarine was entangled in fishermen's drifting nets some 20 km off the eastern port of Sokcho, which is some 50 miles south of the North's territorial waters.
Military experts speculated that the submarine was trapped in the fishing nets as she was resurfacing because of some mechanical failures or for recharging batteries.
Midget sources said that the midget submarine is one of 45 `Yugo-class' submarines possessed by the Stalinist North Korea. Powered by two diesel engines, the 70-tonne submarine is able to cover 550 miles at the maximum speed of 10 knots per hour without refueling and travel 50 miles underwater at four knots an hour.
The vessel, 20-metres (yard) long, 3.1metres wide and 4.6 metres high, is able to take in eight people including four crew members.
With her plastic hull, she is difficult to be detected by radar and mainly used for infiltration and irregular warfare because she is able to quickly submerge and surface and reach maximum speed.
North Korea bought seven mini submarines from former Yugoslavia in the mid-1970s and produced more on its own.
The submarine is less than one-third the size of another North Korean submarine that ran aground off the eastern port of Kangnung in September 1996. Twenty-six North Koreans aboard the submarine landed in the South, triggering a massive man-hunt that lasted for more than 50 days.
One was captured alive, 11 were found murdered, and 13 others were shot dead by South Korean troops and one was unaccounted for. Seventeen South Koreans including four civilians also died in the clashes.
North Korea has some 100 submarines, including 45 midget submarines, the captured submarine crew member, Lee Kwang-Soo had said.
Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.