January 1968: Assassins Storm Seoul; US Spyship Seized
By Andrew Salmon
Winter-bound Seoul was tense on 21 Jan 1968. The city was swarming with security personnel, for North Korean commandos had been reported heading south.
At around 10:30 a.m., a group of 31 men in trench coats were halted at a city-center checkpoint. They were a capital-based special unit, they retorted. Police let them pass.
Some 800 meters from Cheong Wa Dae, another police officer, Choi Kyu-shik, challenged them. This time there was no bluffing. Under his trench coat, each man carried an automatic rifle, 320 rounds, 14 grenades, a pistol and a knife.
Choi was mown down. Their cover blown, the men ― a platoon from North Korea's crack 124th Special Forces ― dashed for their objective. Their mission: Kill President Park Chung-hee and kick-start a revolution.
As South Korean security forces converged, a running firefight broke out. A bus containing screaming civilians was shredded in the crossfire. Then the commandos ran into something they could not fight: tanks. They scattered and fled.
One man, however, threw down his weapons. His name was Kim Shin-jo. ``I had
the desire to live,'' Kim recalled in a 2008 interview. ``It is the basic desire of humans.''
For months previously, Kim and his comrades had trained furiously in weapons and martial arts, running through mountains carrying 30-kg packs, hiding in grave mounds and learning South Korean accents.
After they killed Park, other commando units would strike, taking over South Korean installations, broadcasting to the populace and opening prisons.
``There would be demonstrations and protests and the government would collapse,'' Kim said. ``It would be like a revolution from within.''
It was possibly the most audacious special operation since the Trojan Horse. Things, however, did not go as planned.
After infiltrating across the frozen Imjin on Jan. 18, the would-be assassins were spotted by loggers.
Kim suggested killing them but his commander, a communist idealist and veteran of seven cross-border missions, refused.
From then on, Kim was convinced the mission was doomed. Sure enough, the loggers informed ROK soldiers.
The hunt was on ― but the northern commandoes moved faster, cross-country, than the ROKs expected. ``They thought we'd move at 8 km per hour, but we moved at 12 km per hour!'' Kim said.
After lying up in mountains overlooking Seoul ― where Kim was surprised at the glittering lights; he had been told the city lacked power ― the men went into action.
Due to their failure, the subsequent operational components were never launched. Kim was taken into high-security custody.
Of his comrades, only one escaped to the North. The rest were hunted down and killed. Sixty-eight South Koreans and three Americans died in the firefights.
High Seas Drama; Wider Wars
One man who would have appreciated being informed about the raid ― but was not ― was Commander Lloyd Bucher of the USS Pueblo.
On Jan. 21 and 22, his spy-ship, patrolling in international waters off North Korea's east coast gathering signals intelligence, was approached by North Korean vessels.
On Jan. 23, the ship was surrounded by North Korean patrol vessels and torpedo boats. MIGs roared overhead.
The Pueblo was unable to run ― it was too slow ― and unable to fight ― it mounted only a single machine gun. North Korean vessels closed in. The U.S. Pacific Command seemed paralyzed: No assistance was dispatched. After a U.S. sailor was killed by gunfire, the Pueblo hove to. She was boarded and her crew seized.
For eleven months, the sailors suffered monotony, a shabby diet and a propaganda barrage in North Korean prisons.
Gestures of resistance ― such as ``flashing the finger'' at propaganda photographers, which the sailors told their captors was a ``Hawaiian good luck sign'' ― resulted in severe beatings.
Only after the crew signed a confession and Washington apologized, were the men freed on Dec 23.
It was a humiliation ― even when the U.S. withdrew its apology, and restated its position that the Pueblo was in international waters.
When he returned home, Bucher faced a court of inquiry for ``confessing.'' His vessel remained in North Korea.
1968 would be the fiercest year of Asia's Cold War. On Jan. 31, Vietnam saw the Tet Offensive, a turning point in that war.
Along Korea's Demilitarized Zone, some 100 ROK soldiers were killed in clashes over 1968; North Korean casualties remain unknown, but were probably higher.
How closely Pyongyang's maneuvers were coordinated with developments in Vietnam is unclear, though the North Koreans were certainly aware of U.S. overstretch.
Kim's provocations may have been entirely independent: In 1966, he had publicly decried the 1953 Armistice Agreement, and it is now known that he informed neither the Soviets nor Chinese in advance of the Pueblo seizure. Indeed, when Washington asked Moscow to intercede on its behalf with Pyongyang over the Pueblo, Moscow proved powerless.
Some academics today believe the Pueblo seizure was a face-saving tactic, following the failure of the Cheong Wa Dae attack.
Confrontation, Detente, Confrontation
Despite the 1968 bloodshed, there would be moves toward detente.
When Kim Il-sung and Lee Hu-rak, Park Chung-hee's intelligence chief, met secretly in 1972, Kim apologized for the Cheong Wa Dae raid, claiming not to have been briefed on it. (A purge of DPRK intelligence and espionage officers took place after the raid, though whether this was to eliminate what Kim called militant elements or to punish them for mission failure is unknown.)
In the eased atmosphere, Park stood down a convict commando unit training to assassinate Kim. (Their story was told in the hit 2003 film ``Silmido,'' though it seems unlikely that the full facts have yet been released.)
But North-South relations would seesaw; tentative detente was followed by further incidents.
In 1976 came the Panmunjeom ax murders. In 1984, a bomb attack in Rangoon devastated a visiting South Korean delegation, almost killing then-President Chun Doo-hwan.
In 1987, a South Korean airliner was blown up by North Korean spies. In 1996, a North Korean submarine with infiltrators aboard ran aground off Gangneung, Gangwon Province.
And in 2000 and 2002, fatal naval skirmishes flared on the disputed West Sea maritime border.
Arguably, however, none of these incidents were as dramatic as those of January 1968. What, then, of the players?
The Players Today
After a year under interrogation, Kim Shin-jo was released. He married a dedicated Christian, wrote four books and is now the pastor of a protestant church training institute set among hills southeast of Seoul; his son lives in Texas.
In North Korea, the 124th Special Forces is believed to have been disbanded, following heavy losses in 1968-69 cross-border missions.
The Pueblo is moored in Pyongyang on the alleged site where the armed American trader, the General Sherman, was destroyed in 1866.
Tourists are welcomed aboard the spy ship to view some (unwittingly entertaining) anti-American propaganda.
In the United States, the Pueblo's crew remains bitter at the navy's treatment of their late commander, who died in 2004.
As of 2009, two members were reportedly attempting to recover damages from North Korea, via assets frozen in the United States.
The incidents of 1968 are now history, but they highlight a contemporary fact much beloved of reporters: That no permanent peace treaty ending the 1950-53 Korean War has yet been signed.
Until it has, the peninsula's ongoing Cold War looks set to continue to sputter and flare.