On a winter's day in 1968, 31 spies from North Korea sneaked across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and penetrated to within meters of the residence of South Korean President Park Chung Hee. Their mission, in the words of one commando: "Cut off Park's head." The North Koreans were disguised in South Korean army uniforms but their Russian coats and incongruous black sneakers caught the eye of a suspicious South Korean cop and most were apprehended and executed. Park was so enraged he ordered the formation of his own 31-strong hit squad with the parallel mission of assassinating Kim Il Sung, his counterpart in the North.
For at least three decades after the armistice that ended the shooting in the 1950-53 Korean War, a bloody tit-for-tat spy game kept the cold war between Seoul and Pyongyang pretty hot. North Korea sent plenty of spies to the South-sometimes on submarines and speedboats-and their frequent capture made the newspapers and magazines. In contrast, the story of Seoul's secret war of spying, sabotage and assassination was far less publicized. It was a long and costly campaign that left almost 5,000 South Koreans dead or missing in the North according to lawmaker Kim Seong Ho, who has pushed for compensation for ex-spies.
Officially, Seoul denies any of it happened, but the spies themselves are starting to talk. Ex-spies complain that the government promised them generous rewards, then reneged. The reason: Seoul didn't want to admit it was employing the same dirty tricks as Pyongyang. In March, several hundred ex-spies demanding compensation and official recognition set fire to canisters of liquefied petroleum gas at a busy intersection in Seoul. Angry protesters wearing red headbands held another demonstration in front of the Ministry of National Defense earlier this month, including a man who stripped in front of riot police. Another protester, Kim Su Chan, said the government harassed him for years after he got back from North Korea, where he spent two months gleaning information from officials by pretending he wanted to work for Pyongyang. Now a grizzled and embittered 80-year-old, Kim lives in an abandoned house in a forest south of Seoul. "Not only did the government not compensate me," says Kim, "they ruined my life."
Seoul's secrets are out, big time. Sony's Columbia TriStar Films recently agreed to fund a South Korean production company's movie about the hit squad ordered to kill Kim Il Sung. (Filming will start this August.) Hewing closely to the original story, the movie will expose a part of history that most Koreans know little about. Under past military governments, it was taboo to mention the spy operations, says producer Jonathan Kim: "We were taught we didn't do stuff like that, only the North did. Nobody has talked about it."
Overt hostilities between North and South were supposed to stop with the 1953 armistice. They didn't, says Lim, who was sent across the dmz in 1965. His orders: blow up a camp housing 162 soldiers. Lim, who asked that his real name not be used, carried the bomb switches; his three men carried five-kilo bombs. They crawled to the perimeter of the camp, knocked out the guards by spraying them with gas from plastic containers, then scrambled out moments before the camp exploded. "I was a soldier working for the South Korean army," Lim says. "I thought this had to be done."
But the most audacious plan of all was the attempt to assassinate Kim Il Sung. The men chosen for the mission were a rough bunch, including a few death-row inmates, according to former camp guards. The identities of the members of this Korean version of The Dirty Dozen were erased when they signed up, leaving their families with no idea what had happened to them. They were sent to the tiny, deserted island of Shilmi off the coast west of Seoul in 1968. One of the first things the men did upon arrival was to dig up a Chinese grave, grind up the bones and scarf them down mixed with a little water. They apparently believed this would cure venereal diseases and build character. They then nailed the skull and two crossbones to a wooden board marking the camp's entrance. Beneath the bones, they wrote the words, "Our creed."
Trained in skydiving, demolition and weapons handling, they were taught to kill with an ax and to hit an enemy in the eye with a knife from 10 meters. They learned to live off raw snakes and rats. Before each drill, they were made to bellow: "If you're caught, blow yourself up." Anyone who fell behind faced a beating from their guard-trainers. One recruit died in swimming endurance training, another fell off a cliff. The guards took one laggard into the ocean and nearly drowned him. Later they buried him on the beach with his head sticking out of the sand and left him there all night. Former trainer Lee Jun Young defends the brutal regimen: "They were going into North Korea. We had to make them as tough as possible."
The training was only supposed to last three months but it stretched to nearly three years as relations between North and South improved. "The men were unhappy," recalls former trainer Yang Dong Su. "There was a lot of tension." On the morning of Aug. 23, 1971, the recruits snapped. One of them walked into the camp commander's office with a laundry basket, pulled out a crowbar and drove it through the commander's forehead. The revolt quickly turned into a massacre, with 17 guards gunned down or drowned trying to flee the island. Yang took a bullet through the neck but survived.
The mutineers made it to the South Korean mainland, hijacked a bus and tried to drive it to the Blue House, the President's official residence. Why they didn't just split up and rely on their survival skills to escape remains a mystery. The bus driver said the men spoke of seeking revenge against President Park, according to media accounts. Their quixotic run for it climaxed in a shoot-out with police. Hopelessly trapped, several escapees pulled out grenades and blew themselves up. Four who survived were later executed. (The Ministry of National Defense won't comment, and still denies that any South Koreans were sent or even trained to go to North Korea; in the propaganda battle that still simmers between North and South, this issue remains sensitive.)
Last year, the government quietly agreed to compensate injured ex-spies and families of agents who never returned. But the more than 2,200 men and women who went north and came back physically unscathed, like Kim Su Chan, got nothing. When he returned from a mission to gather intelligence in 1961, he expected to collect the money his recruiters had promised him. Instead, Seoul accused him of working for the North Koreans. They let him go but kept him under surveillance, and he couldn't get a job because the police interrogated anybody who hired him. He eventually retreated to the mountains south of Seoul, surviving by cultivating and selling trees and flowers. "I told them, 'If you want me to say I'm a spy, I'll say it since you'll torture me,'" recalls Kim. "They said, 'OK, you're not a spy,' and let me go. But they followed me for the rest of my life."
Today, little remains on the island of Shilmi to mark the drama that occurred there. The forest has reclaimed the concrete remains of the camp, which was blown up after the mutiny. A few 30 cm-high faux mountains lie in the underbrush, all that's left of an elaborate concrete-and-papier-machE model of Pyongyang the men used to learn the layout of the streets around Kim Il Sung's residence. The surviving trainers want to build a memorial there to those who died. The ex-spies hope this will force Koreans to remember the sacrifices they made during the war that officially never happened.
I watched the movie with my dad like last year or so.
It was good in my opinion... just that there's nothing to really go crazy about.
Plenty of beatings and profanities... but it's a good movie haha.
P.S.: From what I know, I don't think little if none of convicts made it in the unit... supposedly under the RoKAF back then.
During the 60s and the 70s, these guys belonged to RoK Army Headquarters Intelligence Detachment (HID) but due to allegations of abuse, they changed their names to Army Intelligence Group, Army Intelligence Command and now they are the Defense Intelligence Command.
So many cover-ups... it's a damn shame
RIP to those who died in the training, mission, and mutiny.
There's another Korean-made movie loosely based off of instances like the one's mentioned (a little bit more modern, though) that came out the same year that "Titanic" did. It actually out-sold "Titanic" world-wide, but didn't get as much publicity because it was a foreign film. It's called "Shiri", and it's a pretty good movie; alittle cheezy at points, but still pretty darn good. You guys should check it out.