Raiders of a lost cause?

January 17th, 1968. 11pm. Black winter night has descended on the peninsula. Thirty-one commandos sneak undetected across the DMZ and into South Korea. Thirty-one of the DPRK’s finest who had been training two years with a monomaniacal fervor for one purpose. Converge on the South’s presidential Blue House. Assassinate Park Chung-hee. Or be martyred trying.

Following the 1953 armistice, which ended the conventional bloody warfare on the Korean peninsula, both the North and the South continued the struggle for unification. Kim Il-sung, the North’s so-called Great Leader, presented proposal upon proposal for a united Korea, under his flag, of course. Syngman Rhee, the South’s strongman, talked of “unification by marching northward”.[1] Unification essentially meant the termination of the opposing regime.

This balanced (as balanced as you could get, anyway) situation began to falter in the late 1950s. Soviet political influence over the North began to weaken. In 1958, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army exited the peninsula, giving Kim full control. The moderating influence of the greater powers inside the DPRK largely disappeared. He consolidated power in a series of purges of the upper echelons.

The great schism of the two major communist powers – China and the Soviet Union – both of whom were important sources of aid caused some concern. Kim, however, managed to play both alliances off each other. Vasily Moskovsky, Soviet ambassador, said that the USSR put up with Kim’s “idiosyncrasies” for fear that he might turn to China.[2] In this space, he deftly managed to impress upon each antagonist that he was leaning towards their side, without fully falling for them.

In the South, Syngman Rhee was deposed after a popular uprising in April of 1960. The country looked, for a moment, on the path towards democracy. Less than a year later, however, Park Chung-hee seized power in a military coup. Even though Park would attempt to normalize the situation and return the country (at least, nominally) to civilian rule, he had no desire for a truly democratic state. He seemed to believe himself the sole representative of the ROK. This was made clear in 1972, when he essentially gave himself dictatorial powers. Park’s image is marked, on the one hand, as the father of South Korea’s “economic miracle” and, on the other, as an authoritarian political repressor.

In the mid 1960s, however, Park’s ROK began attaining legitimacy, as political and economic fortunes rose rapidly. This was in contrast to the North, whose fortunes began to dwindle. In the 1950s, the North seemed to emerge from the war in a grander state. With the support of its giant communist sponsors, economic recovery and state reconstruction occurred at a rapid rate. The DPRK’s GNP remained higher than its southern counterpart’s until the mid-1960s. However, there were signs that the juche system was reaching its limits. Production was slowing or reversing. Overdependence on foreign aid and “internal” state “deficiencies” precipitated in a declining economy.[3] In December of 1962, perhaps tired of his gaming, the USSR suspended aid to the North, claiming that Kim had leaned too far towards the Chinese.[4]

But it was the South’s economic policies that were causing great woe. Only a month after seizing power, Park set up the Economic Planning Board (formerly, Economic Planning Council) to oversee the South’s foray into a system of “guided capitalism”. Park developed his program of economic development based on the successful Japanese model. In 1965, he even normalized relations with Japan, a highly contentious move which, nevertheless, brought an immediate $800 million assistance package.[5]

The South’s participation in the Vietnam War (which was then in full-swing) not only seemed to strengthen the alliance between it and the United States, but also provided an economic boost. In 1966, revenues from the war made up forty percent of its foreign exchange earnings, making Vietnam “the country’s first overseas profit center”.[6]

Under Park’s economic program, which would continue into the 1970s, the South would attain tremendous growth. Poverty dramatically decreased, GNP the opposite. The World Bank estimated that inflation-adjusted GNP tripled each decade after Park’s first year in office.[7]

Sensing that the situation was shifting, Kim Il-sung “thought it inevitable” that “time was running out to reunify the peninsula under his terms”.[8] In December of 1962, the same month of the Soviet aid cutoff, Kim announced a new “military line”. The policy essentially sought the communization of the peninsula under a different combat direction. With a tone that was “definitely Maoist”, he advocated “a politically aware ‘army of cadres’ (revolutionary agitators), the arming of his entire populace, completion of nationwide military industrialization, and modernization of his conventional armed forces”.[9]

The new “military line” emphasized unconventional and irregular warfare, the type of stuff that North Korea would later frequently make headlines for: guerilla tactics, increased espionage and sabotage operations, assassination plots, etc. The “military line” that was adopted was not entirely unprecedented. The North continuously assessed the situation south of the 38th. Between April 1960, when Rhee’s regime fell, and May 1961, when Park seized power, it vastly increased the numbers of southbound agents.[10] Agents were mainly instructed to propagandize, missionaries to convert South Koreans to the juche cause.

By the mid 1960s, however, the shifting dynamics on the peninsula had attained permanence or, at least, had permanently shifted Northern thinking. The North, which was convinced that it was running out of time, permanently adopted the precepts of the December 1962 “military line”. In its effort to “arm the entire people” and “turn the entire country into an impenetrable fortress”, North Korea became a “colossal garrison state”.[11] Furthermore, looking towards their compatriots in Vietnam, where American and South Korean forces were currently engaged, the North was not yet convinced that opening up a “second front” in Asia was a reckless venture.

In the late 1960s, tensions had risen to another high on the Korean peninsula. The DMZ, that unavoidable first-and-last defense (from the ground, anyway), became the most obvious site for increased shadow war. Following Kim’s new “military line”, this period of conflict saw a marked move away from conventional warfare to shadow warfare – or low-intensity conflict – marked by infiltration, assassination plots, and irregular/guerrilla combat.

The North, at the Great Leader’s behest, began to infiltrate as many operatives south as possible. The main objective, from their view, was armed communization of the South. Kim Il-sung had propagandized his people – perhaps even himself – into believing that those south of the 38th were an oppressed people awaiting liberation. To that end, he attempted to sow discontent in the South, destroy morale, and even foster an insurgency against the ROK’s government. The clock seemingly turned against Kim and his cronies, the North escalated its campaign fiercely.

The violence was tit-for-tat, and the South gave as good as it got.

“Our troops’ morale was seriously undermined as the communist North deployed a host of armed infiltrators at that time who took the lives of many South Koreans and destroyed major facilities. Something had to be done to stop it.” – Lee Jin-sam

In 1966, Northern commandos had infiltrated the South fifty-seven times. That number shot up to one hundred and eighteen in 1967. The number of incidents along the DMZ itself was reported to number three hundred and sixty in 1967, up from forty-two the previous year.[12] In January of 1968, tensions reached a fever pitch, at least from the perspective of the South and its allies (chiefly, the United States). Not only did that month witness the North’s seizing of the USS Pueblo, but also their most audacious infiltration and assassination attempt yet, if only due to its target and how perilously close they got to a “mission accomplished”.

south-korea-academy-peter-macqueen

A sign at the Advanced Combat Training Academy in 1967, Peter MacQueen ©Star and Stripes

Members of North Korea’s elite Unit 124 had spent two years preparing for the mission. Enrolling in an arts program that the North excelled at, they trained for infiltration, exfiltration, airborne and amphibious ops, navigation, hand-to-hand and weapons, and concealment, which included grave-digging and sleeping amongst the bones and dead bodies. “It made us fearless,” Kim Shin-jo, the only captured commando, stated later, “No one would think to look for us in a graveyard.”

After a final fifteen days of rehearsal on a full-scale model of the Blue House, their superiors felt they were ready. Kim Il-sung wanted his southern counterpart, Park Chung-hee, dead.

“I’ve come to cut Park Chung-hee’s throat.” – Kim Shin-jo

The continuous struggle between the two halves began to take on the shape of a titanic personal struggle between two leaders who envisioned themselves the face of their countries. Cut the head off the Leviathan, and the rest would wither and die. At least, that was what Kim Il-sung believed. Kim Shin-jo, the sole surviving captured member of Unit 124, explained that killing Park “would create political problems in the South Korean government and would agitate the South Korean people to fight against their government and the American imperialists”.[13] The Great Leader basically surmised that Park’s decapitation would be a “shortcut” to unification. That the political instability caused by his Southern counterpart’s demise would allow his pro-North agents (and whomever was with them) to usurp power.

Unit 124 snaked its way south towards the capital, Seoul, unseen. On January 19th, 1968, their smooth operation met with its first hitch. Hiding out in the woods during daylight, four South Korean woodcutters unexpectedly stumbled onto the unit’s camp. Having been convinced by Kim Il-sung that the South’s populace was ripe for liberation, the Northern commandos immediately assumed the role of ideologues, extolling the virtues of juche to what could only have been four very bewildered South Koreans. The North Koreans then made a fatal mistake (from their point-of-view, anyway).

They let them go.

“Had we killed them all, no alert would have been raised and I suspect we would have been able to achieve our objective.” – Kim Shin-jo

A fierce debate had arisen between the commandos of whether or not to leave any witnesses, which would undoubtedly compromise their mission. They calculated (or miscalculated) that their mission would be over in a few hours, and that the civilians would probably not alert the authorities immediately. Nor would the authorities believe such a ridiculous story.[14] With a stern warning not to go to the police, the commandos let the four South Koreans walk away.

They were wrong on every count. The four woodcutters immediately notified the authorities, who immediately raised the alarm. But by the night of the 20th, the stealthy would-be assassins had already entered Seoul in two- and three-man cells. With its security amped up, Seoul was in a frenzied state. Realizing that the original plan was doomed to fail, the unit’s leaders decided to improvise. Donning ROK Army uniforms, with the correct insignia of the 26th Infantry Division, the unit formed up to march the last mile to the Blue House. They were to pose as ROK soldiers returning from patrol.

They marched right through the city, past several military checkpoints. On the morning of the 21st, a short eight hundred meters from the Blue House, they were stopped at a final checkpoint. Asked questions beyond what they had rehearsed, the North Koreans fumbled their replies. A jeep was coming up the road carrying Police Chief Choi Kyu-sik. He was shouting at the commandos, “Identify yourselves! What’s inside your coats?” He started to pull out a gun. Two buses were approaching. Thinking the buses were carrying police or military personnel, the commandos shot Choi in the chest, tossed grenades into the buses. In the ensuing firefight, two Unit 124 members were killed. The rest immediately scattered and began racing towards the DMZ.

Over the next week, a massive manhunt was carried out by the South Korean and American forces. Kim Shin-jo was captured alive at the foot of Mount Inwang. Of the other thirty, one survivor was reported to have escaped back across the DMZ into the North, later to become a general. The rest were killed. The North Koreans inflicted a heavy toll. The figures have differed over the years, but none of them speak favorably towards the security measures that the South Koreans had taken over the years.

kim-shin-jo

Kim Shin-jo shortly after his capture

In immediate retaliation, Park Chung-hee had the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) form his own assassination squad: Unit 684. The unit, however, was composed not of elite soldiers, but petty criminals and unemployed youths. Men who had been promised pardons and money and jobs were now being tasked to take out the Great Leader. On a remote island, Silmido, the thirty-one operatives were trained to exhaustion, perfection, even death (at least seven members died during training). Prior to the 1972 peace talks, during a period of eased tensions and improved North-South relations, the assassination plan was scrapped. In August of 1971, the unit rebelled, marauding their way towards the mainland. Hijacking a bus to Seoul, they were stopped by the army. Twenty were killed or committed suicide. Four were later executed.

If Kim Il-sung had believed his own propaganda, he might have come to a forced and sudden realization that South Koreans had no desire to be “liberated”. There was no “revolutionary underground” ready and willing to topple Park’s regime. The death of thirty of his most elite men had merely exposed to the rest of the world what he should have already known. In the struggle between the two heads of the divided nation, Kim had lost face, while the South rallied behind Park.

Unit 124 was part of the Special Operation Forces, part of the Reconnaissance Bureau. North Korea’s prioritization of unconventional methods of warfare, including special operations, continues to this day. While North Korea maintains one of the largest standing armies in the world, its focus remains on unconventional and asymmetric warfare, including long-range artillery, ballistic missiles, and special operation forces (SOF). The SOF is the best-trained, most well-fed, and “easily the most indoctrinated of all DPRK military forces”.[15] South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense places the number of SOF at around 200,000. The North remains focused on assassination attempts, infiltrations, espionage, terrorism, etc. There have been several high-profile incidents in the past, and continuing polices into the present. The ROKS Cheonan was sunk recently by “what is believed to be a Reconnaissance General Bureau Yeono-class midget submarine”.

“The General Bureau of Reconnaissance which Oh was placed at the head of is a gigantic organization, the result of a merger between the former Reconnaissance Bureau, the Operations Department, of which Oh was formerly in charge, and the No. 35 Office, which previously carried out overseas spy and international terrorist operations.” – Park Sung-kook (May 7th, 2010)

The situation on the peninsula has transformed immeasurably since January 1968. South Korea has become a democracy, while North Korea continues to renew its status as Hermit Kingdom. The Soviet Union is no more, while China’s rapid growth has perhaps given it more clout in its relations with its Pyongyang ally. Furthermore, dynastic successions in the North and its nuclear program look as if the equation is changing.

“The consolidation of responsibilities under General O Kuk-ryol suggests the North may be adopting an active policy against South Korea that may include more provocative operations in the future.” – 38 North

The North’s preponderance on attaining nuclear weaponry is not out-of-touch with its asymmetric stratagems. The supposed consolidation of its SOF under O Kuk-ryol and its supposed goals are all long-running trends. Many accounts of the Blue House Raid give neither background nor context into why Kim Il-sung opted to escalate the war on the peninsula. As irrational as the North’s actions appear to be to the international community, there is, in the end, some rhyme, some reason.

Some further possible goals and motives of the North’s Blue House Raid and its “growing bellicosity” along on the DMZ in general, included the disruption of the South’s economy, enemy production (convenient excuses to its overworked people), undermining the structures and political stability of the South, etc.[16] According to a defector, Kim Seong-min, the current SOF is trained to “damage South Korea’s reputation by creating an internal commotion, and paralyze the country’s command structures to facilitate a (Pyongyang-led) forced unification of the Korean Peninsula”.

So it seems the overall strategies have not changed, even if many of the tactics have. The North has continued to abet terrorists, conduct its own operations, foment instability, infiltrate the South, etc. The problem is that the North’s regime feels that such provocations are to its advantage, either internally or externally. Whether or not the recent escalation in dramatic and provocative actions had anything to do with how unstable the regime was becoming, or is, remains to be seen. While an external observer might deem the North’s actions as irrational, or even downright crazy, the North has motives for what it does, and has certain goals it works towards. And as long as the DPRK “assesses that it can advance its foreign policy through brinkmanship and provocations” and “no signs indicate that the leadership in Pyongyang has stopped believing it” such provocations will continue to occur and even take new or different forms.[17]


  1. Daniel P. Bolger, “Scenes from an Unfinished War: Low-Intensity Conflict in Korea, 1966 – 1969”, Leavenworth Papers 19 (1991): 1
  2. Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013)
  3. Ibid
  4. Bolger, 2
  5. Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, 3rd Ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2014)
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Jager
  9. Bolger, 3
  10. B.C. Koh, “The Pueblo Incident in Perspective”, Asian Survey 9, no. 4 (April 1969): 269
  11. Ibid, 271
  12. Jager
  13. Bolger, 62
  14. Ibid, 63
  15. Bruce Bechtol, Jr., The Last Days of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2013)
  16. Koh, 275
  17. Bechtol
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