By 1967, the Republic of Korea (ROK) had some 44,829 South Korean forces in Vietnam. An overwhelming force of NVA and Vietcong had the misfortune of surrounding a platoon of “Blue Dragon” Marines on February 15 of that year, near the village of Trà Bình. Poor visibility precluded air support, and the fighting that followed was close and personal. When it was over, 243 NVA lay dead. Korean Marines lost fewer than a dozen men.
Any combat veteran of the war in Southeast Asia will tell you, in Vietnam they faced a tough and disciplined soldier. POW interrogations of captured NVA revealed one Lieutenant Trung to be particularly hard core, a tough guy in a world of tough guys. A US Marine Corps Lieutenant of Korean ancestry, dressed in the uniform of the Blue Dragon Marines, and paid a visit to Lt. Trung’s cell. Not a word or gesture passed between the two, the mere presence of a Blue Dragon was enough to get this guy talking. Korean fighters are no joke.
For two years, an elite, all-officer force of 31 North Korean commandos were trained in infiltration and exfiltration techniques, weaponry, navigation, concealment and hand-to-hand combat, with particular emphasis on knife fighting. They were “Unit 124”, highly trained and fanatically loyal soldiers, tough as rawhide and each prepared to die for the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (DPRK), Kim Il-Sung.
On January 17, 1968, Unit 124 infiltrated the 2½ mile demilitarized zone (DMZ), cutting the wire and entering South Korea. Their mission was to assassinate ROK President Park Chung-hee in his home, the South Korean Executive Mansion known as “Blue House”.
It’s hard to think of anything goofier, and at the same time more lethal, than the hare-brained political calculations of DPRK leadership. Somehow it made sense to these guys, that to assassinate the South Korean President and hurl his head out of the official residence, would start a popular uprising leading to the re-unification of the Korean peninsula under DPRK government.
On the 19th, four brothers of the Woo family were out gathering firewood, when they stumbled upon Unit 124. A fierce debate ensued among the commandos, as to what to do with these guys. Training dictated that they be immediately killed, yet somehow that didn’t seem right. Wasn’t communist ideology supposed to be a “people’s movement”? Besides, it would have taken too long to bury their bodies in the frozen ground.
The decision was made to convert them on the spot. Talk about goofy. After a suitably long harangue on the wonders of communism, the Woo brothers wisely proclaimed themselves converts. Whereupon they were released, and went directly to the authorities.
Unit 124 broke camp, for the next two days averaging 10kph over mountainous terrain, despite carrying an average 70lbs apiece in equipment.
Commandos made it to within 100 meters of Blue House on January 21, when they were challenged at a road block. The firefight broke out without warning, dissolving into a running gunfight and manhunt lasting until the 29th. When it was over, 26 South Korean military and police personnel were killed along with two dozen civilians, and 66 wounded. Four Americans were killed in efforts to prevent Unit 124 members from re-crossing the DMZ.
29 commandos were killed or committed suicide. One escaped, back into North Korea. Only one, Kim Shin-jo, was captured alive.
History has a way of swallowing some events whole. The Battle of Khe Sanh started in Vietnam the same day as the raid. Two days later a US Navy technical research ship, the USS Pueblo, was captured by North Korean forces. The Tet Offensive broke out all across South Vietnam on January 31st. Soon the Blue House raid was all but forgotten.
Kim Shin-Jo was interrogated for a year, to learn how the raid had been carried out. Meanwhile, ROK authorities “recruited” their own commando assassination squad, as a bit of payback. The 31 members of “Unit 684” were recruited from South Korean death row and other hardened prisoners, possibly due to the suicidal nature of their mission. The “training” they were subjected to on Silmido Island, off the coast of Inchon, was beyond brutal. Seven of them would not survive it.
The raid was never carried out. North-South relations were thawing by August of 1971, as the Silmido Island recruits staged an insurrection. How it started is unclear, but 20 inmate/recruits were dead before it was over, along with a number of their overseers. The four surviving Unit 684 recruits were tried for their role in the uprising by a military tribunal, and executed in 1972.
In May of 2010, Seoul courts ordered the government to pay $231 million to the families of 21 members of Unit 684.
Kim Shin-jo’s parents were murdered by North Korean authorities and his relatives “purged”, after he became a citizen of the ROK in 1970. Now a married father of two, Kim renounced his communist ideology, since becoming a pastor of the Seoul “Sungrak” (“Holy Joy”) Baptist Church.
I’m indebted for this story to a man who was a family friend, almost before my parents decided to start a family. I have known this man longer than I can remember, and flatter myself to regard him as a personal friend. He was one of the interrogators, during both the Trung and the Kim episodes related above. Thank you, Victor, for your story, and for your service.