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, a 10-to-1 numerical superiority near the village of Trà Bình. Poor visibility precluded air support and the fighting which followed was close, and personal. By the time it was over, 243 NVA lay dead. Korean Marines lost 15 men.
North Vietnam’s Commander-In-Chief put out an order to all his forces advising them: “Avoid ROK Marines at all costs.”
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. One 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 skills. These were “Unit 124” commandos, 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), “Dear Leader” 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 Executive Mansion equivalent to the United States’ own White House, the “Pavilion of Blue Tiles” known as “Blue House”.
It’s hard to think of anything goofier and at the same time more hellishly 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 from the official residence, would start a popular uprising leading to the re-unification of the Korean peninsula. Under DPRK government, no less.
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 they be killed without hesitation, yet somehow that didn’t seem right. Wasn’t communist ideology supposed to be a “people’s movement”? Besides, it would take too long to bury the bodies in the rock-hard, frozen ground.
The decision was made to convert the brothers, on the spot. Talk about goofy. After a suitably long harangue on the wonders of communist ideology, the Woo brothers wisely proclaimed themselves, converted. Thus released, the brothers went directly to authorities.
Unit 124 broke camp, for the next two days averaging 10kph over mountainous terrain, despite an average 70-pounds apiece in equipment.
Commandos made it to within 100 meters of Blue House on January 21, only to be challenged at a road block. The firefight broke out without warning, dissolving into a running gunfight and manhunt lasting for the next eight days. When it was over, 26 South Korean military and police personnel were dead along with two dozen civilians and another 66, grievously 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 to North Korea. Only one, Kim Shin-jo, was captured alive.
History has a way of swallowing some events whole. Over in Vietnam, the Battle of Khe Sanh began 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 30. In no time at all, the Blue House raid was forgotten.
Kim Shin-Jo’s interrogation lasted nearly 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 among South Korean petty criminals, the sort of guys who “got into street fights”. A lot.
The three years’ “training” these recruits were subjected to on Silmido Island, off the coast of Inchon, was beyond brutal. Seven of didn’t live through it.
Silmido, a 2003 film produced by Kang Woo-suk
The raid was never carried out. North-South relations had thawed by August 1971, as the Silmido Island recruits staged an insurrection. 20 inmate/recruits were dead before it was over, shot to death by members of the ROK military or committed suicide, with hand grenades. The last four Unit 684 survivors were tried by a military tribunal for their role in the uprising and executed, in 1972.
The government buried the story. The tale of Unit 684 was all but unknown until the 2003 film Silmido, the first movie in South Korea to attract a box office of over 10 million viewers. 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 became a citizen of the Republic of Korea in 1970. Kim’s parents were murdered by North Korean authorities and his relatives “purged”. Kim renounced his communist ideology and became an ordained minister with the Seoul “Sungrak” (“Holy Joy”) Baptist Church in Gyeonggi-do. He has a wife and two children.
I’m indebted for this story to a man who was a family friend, almost before my folks 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.