The Seiko Found In The Wreckage Of A Spy Ship And North Korean Covert Operations

The Seiko Found In The Wreckage Of A Spy Ship And North Korean Covert Operations

A Seiko Dive Watch 7548 - 7000 was recovered from the wreckage of a North Korean Spy Ship after the Battle of Amami-Ōshima. Where did it come from and what does it tell us about North Korean Covert Action?

At CIA, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is known as one of the “big four,” along with Russia, China, and Iran. The big four (five with Cuba sometimes included) are “hard target” countries that represent a particular challenge for traditional intelligence collection.

Kim Jong Un IWC Schaffhausen Watch
Kim Jong Un wearing an IWC Portofino. (Photo Credit: Unknown)

Hollywood will often relegate North Korean intelligence officers, primarily the Reconnaissance Bureau of the General Staff Department (RGB), as comedic bumbling amateurs, but we learned to never underestimate our adversaries. The Hermit Kingdom has been successful in projecting power well beyond its borders, including the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 killing 115 people with a bomb in the overhead bin, the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures in response to the upcoming film The Interview, kidnapping dozens of Japanese citizens off the beach, and notably the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong Nam with a VX nerve agent in the Kuala Lumpur airport.

Operatives have been particularly effective at conducting covert action and subversion activities in neighboring waters surrounding Japan and South Korea.

A Seiko In A North Korean Spy Ship

North Korean spy frogman seiko 7548 dive watch
The Seiko 7548 - 7000 recovered from the Changyu 3705. (Photo Credit: Instagram: @thewristplorer & Japan Coast Guard Museum Yokohama) 

A Seiko on display in a museum located in Japan is nothing out of the ordinary. Seiko itself even maintains a public museum in Tokyo’s shopping district, Ginza, where notable watches from the brand are on display. These watches are part of the larger story of Japanese horology, otaku culture, and all that comes with it. 

Drive 30 minutes by car to the south, just outside the metropolis of Tokyo, there’s a Seiko diver sitting in a glass case at the Japan Coast Guard Museum Yokohama. It’s crusted in sea salt and flotsam-filled grime, and its bezel insert is nowhere to be found. This watch, in particular, a ref. 7548 - 7000, while horologically interesting, is part of a much different story, the story of relations between the nations of Japan and North Korea, often characterized by hostility and tension.

Sometimes a watch has multiple stories to tell — be it of horological significance, the course of nations, or in this case, both.

December 21st, 2001 - The Waters Of Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan

north korean spy ship Changyu 3705 seiko 7548
The Changyu 3705 shortly before being fired upon by the Japan Coast Guard. (Photo Credit: Japan Coast Guard)

The Japanese Defense Intelligence Headquarters was picking up unusual signals from a communication station in Kikaijima, a small island in the Amami archipelago, far away from any major metropolitan area of Japan. The subtropical archipelago sits about 130 miles north of Okinawa. The communications caused what looked like a fishing trawler to come under investigation by the Japan Coast Guard. Four vessels were deployed to ascertain the ship’s intentions — benign or nefarious.

The ship was issued a warning to halt. It did not comply. It resembled a fishing vessel, common in these waters. But breaking an official order certainly was uncommon. This was a fushin-sen, or “suspicious ship”, after all.

Following established escalation procedures, the Japan Coast Guard fired 25 warning shots across the bow of the boat.

Normally that would be enough to persuade even the most recalcitrant fishing trawler — possibly using illegal techniques to harvest fish — to cut its engine and allow the Coast Guard to board for inspection. Instead, the ship in question started performing evasive maneuvers and increasing its speed to 33 knots — staggeringly fast for a trawler.

japan maritime self defense force special boat unit sbu
Japan’s Special Boarding Unit was established as a response to repeated spy ship incursions into Japanese waters. (Photo Credit: Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)

Meanwhile, the Japan Coast Guard had readied its Special Boarding Unit, known as the Tokubetsukeibitai, in case the situation reached a point where it would be needed.

Instead of heeding the warning shots, the trawler fired back and a firefight ensued. It was equipped with light and heavy machine guns and the occupants of the ship utilized rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) to return fire to the Japan Coast Guard vessel. Later, Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) and a double-barrel ZPU-2 anti-aircraft weapons system would be found aboard.

Bullet holes on the recovered wreck of the Changyu 3705
Bullet holes on the recovered wreck of the Changyu 3705, now on display at the Japan Coast Guard Museum Yokohama. (Photo Credit: Japan Coast Guard Museum Yokohama)

The ship was no ordinary fishing vessel, it was a North Korean spy ship, later identified as the Changyu 3705. It was meticulously disguised as a fishing trawler with Chinese characters painted on its hull. Everyone aboard the North Korean vessel perished when the ship sank; a few bodies were recovered, while the majority went missing. It was unclear if it was Japanese rounds that sent it to the bottom of the East China Sea or if the crew scuttled it, but roughly six hours after warning shots were fired, the North Korean vessel became a shipwreck.

September 2002 - The Site Of The Changyu 3705 Wreck

A massive ship equipped with a crane was chartered by the Japan Coast Guard to raise the wreck of the 98-foot Changyu 3705. Once on dry land, the Japanese government discovered the boat had been specially modified with concealed compartments for the deployment of landing craft. There was also a system of armament on rails so a recoilless rifle could be moved out of sight. It turns out the ship had a self-destruction system too.

Small arms recovered from the wreck of the Changyu 3705 in 2002
Small arms recovered from the wreck of the Changyu 3705 in 2002. (Photo Credit: Japan Coast Guard Museum Yokohama)

After inspecting the hull, the government took an inventory of everything onboard. Weapons, communication equipment, DPRK propaganda documents (including a portrait of Kim Jong Il), nautical charts of their area of operations, and something rather curious — a Japanese-made Seiko 7548 - 7000.

North Korea & Seiko Watches

Why would a North Korean spy have a Japanese watch in his possession? Japan is a sworn enemy of the North Korean state. Surely they wouldn't be supporting a capitalistic Japanese juggernaut like Seiko.

A Seiko 7548 recovered from a captured North Korean frogman on Dadaepo Beach in 1983
A Seiko 7548 recovered from a captured North Korean frogman on Dadaepo Beach in 1983. (Photo Credit: KTV, via Ryan's Blog)

We’ve covered how a watch can be used in an operational capacity, perhaps to support a cover. But the answer in this case is probably a simple one: intelligence practitioners need tools that work. And Seikos just work when you need them to and are particularly well suited for the maritime environment. It’s not the first instance of a known North Korean operator wearing a Seiko dive watch, either.

north korean dprk divers frogmen seiko
An unconfirmed image of the North Korean spies captured on South Korea’s South Korea’s Dadaepo Beach in 1983. One was captured wearing a Seiko 6309 - 7040 and the other a 7548 - 7000.

According to Ryan's Blog, in a separate incident on December 3, 1983, two North Korean frogmen were intercepted and captured while infiltrating South Korea’s Dadaepo Beach located in Busan. They would eventually defect to South Korea, but not before being processed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. They were stripped of their equipment, including the Type SP-10 semi-submersible they used to get onshore.

A Seiko 6309-7040 taken from one of the North Korean frogmen following their capture in 1983 on Dadaepo Beach
A Seiko 6309 - 7040 taken from one of the North Korean frogmen following their capture in 1983 on Dadaepo Beach. (Photo Credit: The War Museum Of Korea, via Ryan's Blog)

Strapped to their wrists? On one, a Seiko 6309 - 7040. On the other, a 7548 - 7000. 

Many forces, historically, have issued Seikos to their operators. This probably isn’t the case in North Korea, however. The prevalent use of Seikos by North Korean operators stems from the reliability of the watches and their relative ubiquity and affordability around the globe. 

Luxury Watches, American Vehicles, & Superdollars

A 1970s Omega bearing Kim Il-Sung’s signature, further evidence of illegally imported luxury goods in the DPRK
A 1970s Omega bearing Kim Il-Sung’s signature, further evidence of illegally imported luxury goods in the DPRK. (Photo Credit: Omega Forums)

We’ve looked at a mysterious Omega bearing the signature of Kim Il-Sung on the dial, specially produced by Omega in the late ‘70s for the regime. Where there’s a dictatorship, luxury goods — illegally and legally imported — usually aren’t far away.

It’s safe to say that the North Korean military didn’t put in an order with Seiko HQ in Japan to obtain these dive watches that seem to be used by North Korean spies and operators. In fact, it’s unlikely that there’s an official retail presence and distribution model for Seiko in the “Hermit Kingdom”. Even the neutral Swiss government banned the export of all Swiss watches to the DPRK in 2016 due to its ongoing research with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

cnn press image illegal luxury goods dprk north korea
Often coming from China, black-market luxury goods including Swiss watches and even American cars make their way into the DPRK. (Photo Credit: CNN)

But that doesn’t stop goods from flowing into the country on the black market. Most luxury goods and dual-use military equipment are imported through the grey market via neighboring China. You’ll even find American automobiles, like the Hummer H1, cruising the streets of Pyongyang. It’s reported that Illicit goods are often purchased with Superdollars, a counterfeit US currency produced by North Korea.

An American-made Hummer H1 cruising the streets of Pyongyang
An American-made Hummer H1 cruising the streets of Pyongyang. (Photo Credit: Thaddeus Stapleton)

This all points to the tangled web of the black market that would allow Seikos to end up in the hands of North Korean operators and spies. North Korea has a network of undeclared intelligence officers around the world and legitimate diplomatic missions to allied states. The watches could be purchased abroad and brought back to North Korea in any number of ways.

What’s left of the Changyu 3705 is on display along with the Seiko 7548 at the Japan Coast Guard Museum Yokohama
What’s left of the Changyu 3705 is on display along with the Seiko 7548 at the Japan Coast Guard Museum Yokohama. (Photo Credit: Japan Coast Guard Museum Yokohama)

We’ll never know the exact origins of the Seiko found at the bottom of the sea aboard the Changyu 3705, or the models involved in the Dadaepo Beach incident. It’s all conjecture at best. The world of covert action and subversion is murky. Whether it's the Navy-issued 6309 on the wrist of a Navy SEAL in the mountains of Afghanistan or the 7548 - 7000 used by a North Korean spy, we can glean that spies and operators tend to gravitate towards the same timekeeping tools.

The ones they can rely on.


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This Dispatch has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.

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Thanks to @thewristplorer on Instagram for providing several photos of the North Korean Seiko 7548 from the Japan Coast Guard Museum Yokohama.


Excellent work. Thank you, as always.


Great article. Perhaps it would be nice if you provide proper references instead of discreetly using my research.

Ryan Hyunsuk

Great article! Reading it as I sit here with a Seiko on my wrist.
BTW the Hummer pictured is an H2. The H1 is a civilian version of the actual military HMMWV.


More great content WOE!


Awesome story! I purchased a 7548-7000 from a guy in Vietnam and it is from the 80s. Between that and my turtle I think they’re the most durable watches. Great write-up!


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