South Korea’s Covert Operations in North Korea

June 2, 2016 War Is Boring 0

The Joint Security Area along the Military Demarcation Line separating North and South Korea. Photo via Wikipedia After Pyongyang attacked Seoul in the late...
The Joint Security Area along the Military Demarcation Line separating North and South Korea. Photo via Wikipedia

After Pyongyang attacked Seoul in the late 1960s, the South counterattacked

by ADAM RAWNSLEY

This is the fourth story in a series. Read parts one, two and three.

In the late 1960s, North Korea unleashed a guerrilla war on South Korea, sending spies and special operations troops across the Military Demarcation Line that separates the two countries in an attempt to cause havoc in the backyard of its rival.

The highlights of Pyongyang’s campaign have since become well known — the attempted assassination of Pres. Park Chung-hee in Seoul, the landing of 120 commandos along the South Korean coast and the infiltration of agents into the Republic of Korea.

Less well-known, however, is the fact that South Korea responded to the attacks with a covert war of its own. Almost from the very beginning of Kim Il-sung’s campaign, South Korean forces retaliated against the North with raids and intelligence missions that ventured across the MDL into North Korean territory.

South Korea has been hesitant to say much about the operations, but some details have come to light.

In 2011, Rep. Lee Jin-sam, a South Korean general and an ROK legislator, told Korea Times that the South had carried out attacks on roughly 50 North Korean facilities in 1967. [1] Other lawmakers have said that South Korea sent as many as 7,700 people into North Korea from the end of the Korean War until 1972, the majority of whom never made it back. [2]

But those aren’t the only sources of information on South Korea’s operations in North Korean territory. Declassified U.S. State Department and CIA documents from the National Archives, which War Is Boring reviewed, shed new light on the ROK’s late-1960s adventures across the MDL.

North Korea fired the opening shots of a three-year-long guerrilla campaign against the ROK on Oct. 13, 1966 with a series of seven ambushes over five days against South Korean forces in the DMZ. Violent clashes in the DMZ had happened periodically since the close of the Korean War, but the frequency, deliberateness and ferocity of the October incidents marked a departure from precedent. [3]

South Korea secretly retaliated. On Oct. 26, 30 South Korean soldiers ventured into the North Korean side of the DMZ and killed an estimated 30 North Korean troops as punishment for the series of attacks, according to a CIA intelligence memorandum about the incidents [4].

One week later, North Korean troops turned their sights on American soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division, ambushing them in a grenade attack in the DMZ that killed six U.S. troops and one South Korean soldier. [5]

The CIA thought that the attack could have been retaliation for the South Korean attack in late October. [6] North Korea’s selection of an American-patrolled sector of the DMZ, the Agency thought, may have been an attempt by the North to get the U.S. to restrain its ROK allies from further attacks like the one in late October. [7]

Regardless, South Korea carried out “another strong reprisal raid” the day after the Nov. 2 attack, according to a February 1967 CIA briefing. Three teams of ROK troops carried out four attacks against North Korean facilities in the DMZ. [8]

The armistice agreement had created a Military Armistice Commission that met at at the village of Panmunjom on the border between the two Koreas. It was designed to supervise the agreement and American military officers, acting under the flag of United Nations Command in Korea, have used the meetings as a rare channel to discuss cross-border tensions with officials from the Korean People’s Army.

When the North Korean delegation arrived at Panmunjom on Nov. 4 to discuss the recent attacks, they were poker-faced.

At the meeting, a U.N. Command official brought up the North’s attacks on U.S. and South Korean troops and warned them not to carry out any more. The subject of South Korea’s attacks, however, never came up — the KPA delegation never mentioned it. [9]

The South Korean raids into North Korean territory worried American officials deeply. Intelligence assessments throughout the late 1960s would repeatedly warn that a cycle of retaliation could lead to escalation and trigger a wider war. [10]

After the violence in October and November 1966, U.S. Army general Charles Bonesteel, commander of both United Nations Command and U.S. Forces Korea, and U.S. ambassador to South Korea William Porter would warn the South Koreans not to carry out any more attacks in response to North Korean provocations. [11]

The CIA at the time believed that South Korean military commanders were motivated to retaliate by a desire to prop up morale among their troops. [12] From the beginning of the campaign in October through the Nov. 2 attack, South Korea had already paid a heavy price from Kim Il-sung’s campaign, losing around 30 troops to North Korean raids. [13]

That assessment was echoed by Lee Jin-sam, who participated in some of the attacks into North Korean territory in 1967. He told Korea Times that the North’s raids through the DMZ “seriously undermined” South Korean troops’ morale and that “something had to be done to stop” Pyongyang’s attacks. [14]

The tension between South Korea’s desire for vengeance and the U.S. need to restrain its ally would put American officials in an awkward position. In a March 1967 memo, State and Defense Department officials wrote that American officials’ attempts to restrain their South Korean allies created an “increasing feeling of frustration and anger” within the ROK government and military.

That tension, the officials warned, “may have a long-range corroding effect on the maintenance of operation control” by U.N. Command over the ROK military. [15]

Nor were American lectures always effective. In December 1967, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific William P. Bundy wrote a briefing memo about the “Problem of ROK forays Across DMZ into North Korea” to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Bundy conveyed Ambassador Porter’s concern that his “verbal interventions” with President Park against the raids into North Korea hadn’t been effective and that he was looking for new ways to apply pressure to stop the attacks. [16]

Lee’s account to Korea Times offers some details on South Korean raids across the MDL in 1967. At the time, Lee was assigned to a South Korean Army Intelligence Unit. He claimed to have ventured into North Korea three times, traveling with captured North Korean infiltrators whom the South Korean military had turned and sent back against their country. [17]

Korean People’s Army soldiers. Photo via Wikipedia

The missions included shooting a group of KPA soldiers laying mines on the North’s side of the DMZ and dressing in a KPA uniform and killing 20 North Korean troops at a guard post. [18]

Another mission to assassinate a senior KPA officer failed. [19]

Lee’s account is buttressed by a declassified document from 1970 written in response to congressional inquiries about South Korean retaliatory activity.

In early 1970, the Senate Foreign Relations committee’s Symington Subcommittee — known formally as the Subcommittee on U.S. Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad — chaired by Sen. Stuart Symington, a Missouri Democrat, submitted a series of questions to Secretary of State William Rogers in advance of hearings on American military commitments in Korea. The subcommittee includes questions about what role the AIUs played in forays into North Korean territory. [20]

Written answers to the questions prepared by Army general John Michaelis, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, revealed that South Korea’s AIUs were the “primary agency for ROK forays and retaliation activities.” The attacks were “few in number” and involved teams that averaged between five to 12 men. [21]

On one occasion, an AIU raiding party included as many as 60 troops. [22]

Strikes by AIUs against North Korea involved “killing army soldiers by attacking barracks, patrols, water points, ground posts and mining travel routes.” The units also carried out sabotage attacks against North Korean “barracks, guard posts, propaganda loudspeakers, regimental command post and division command posts.” [23]

The retaliatory attacks, the commander emphasized, were not authorized or coordinated with the U.S. military. [24]

The Symington Subcommittee also asked about a South Korean outfit named “Unit 5796” and whether it was involved in raids into North Korea. “Information on the 5796 Unit should be sought from the director [of the] National Security Agency,” was all that Michaelis offered. [25]

South Korean trips into North Korean territory weren’t only about carrying out attacks, though. ROK forces ventured north in order to collect intelligence, too.

The “great preponderance” of AIU missions, according to the U.S. Forces Command chief, were focused on intelligence-gathering and most missions involved a single operative. AIUs were primarily tasked with collecting intelligence on North Korea’s order of battle and creating intelligence networks that could warn South Korea of an impending attack from the North. [26]

Nonetheless, U.S. Forces Korea hoped to sign a memorandum of agreement with the South Korean Ministry of National Defense which would give the U.S. advance notice before it carried out unilateral intelligence-gathering missions into North Korea. American forces were keen to get a heads up because it seemed that the purportedly intelligence-focused missions “have, on occasion, been used as cover to conduct forays and retaliations.” [27]

The CIA, too, had picked up hints of roughly 12 South Korean intelligence operations into North Korean territory from 1967 through late January 1968. South Korea, the Agency thought, likely hadn’t put too much effort into the missions because they were incredibly risky and unlikely to yield any valuable insight. [28]

“Since nothing of substance was revealed to us as to intelligence picked up by their agents we assume these were failures or they never occurred,” it wrote in a report. [29]

The pressure for South Korea to retaliate against North Korea only increased after a North Korean special operations unit tried to assassinate South Korean president Park and North Korean forces seized the USS Pueblo spy ship.

In a meeting with former Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance, sent to Seoul by the White House as envoy after the incidents, Park suggested the United States should retaliate for the Pueblo seizure and attempt on his life by striking North Korean ships and the 124th Army Unit, the outfit responsible for the assassination attempt. [30]

Washington wasn’t in the mood for retaliation, though, particularly with 82 of its servicemen from Pueblo still in North Korean captivity.

Instead, Park would look to repay Kim Il-sung in kind on his own. Shortly after the attack, the ROK military began assembling a commando team dubbed Unit 684 to take out North Korean premiere Kim Il-sung. [31]

Unit 684 was composed of 31 members, just like its North Korean equivalent in the 124th. The outfit recruited civilians with the lure of a lucrative payout for participating in an operation behind enemy lines. [32]

South Korea’s military established Unit 684 as part of the ROK air force and trained it on Silmido, an island in the Yellow Sea off South Korea’s western coast. [33] The men were treated harshly — South Korean troops killed five of them in 1968 and 1970, either for escape attempts or disciplinary issues. [34]

Fed up with conditions, the men mutinied in 1971, leaving the island and heading to Seoul on a hijacked bus. After a fight with South Korean security forces, most of the troops committed suicide with their grenades. [35]

South Korea’s operations in North Korea were rooted in the country’s experience during the Korean War. During the conflict, the U.S. Air Force parachuted Korean guerrillas and spies into North Korean territory in a classified program called Operation Aviary. The operatives were carried out attacks against enemy troops and infrastructure and collected intelligence. [36]

North Korea, as well, drew on its guerilla experience in the 1950s conflict, modeling units like the 124th on the 766th Independent Unit, which had carried out harassing operations behind enemy lines in the early days of the war. [37]

That pattern would be a defining one for the covert war between the two Korea in the late 1960s — two countries locked in conflict, acting out the muscle memory of a formative war.

References

  1. Lee Tae-hoon, “S. Korea raided North with captured agents in 1967,” Korea Times, Feb. 7, 2011. [Online]
  2. Norimitsu Onishi, “South Korean Movie Unlocks Door on a Once-Secret Past,” The New York Times, Feb. 15, 2004. [Online]
  3. “Weekly Summary,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79-00927A005500050001-8, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Nov. 10, 1966.
  4. “Intelligence Report (Supplement) Prepared Weekly for the Senior Interdepartmental Group,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00826A001400010031-6, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Nov. 7, 1968.
  5. “N. Koreans Kill GIs,” UPI via Desert Sun, Number 77, Nov. 2, 1966 [Online]
  6. “Armed Incidents Along the Korean DMZ,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00826A001400010033-4, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Nov. 8, 1966.
  7. “Intelligence Report (Supplement) Prepared Weekly for the Senior Interdepartmental Group,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00826A001400010031-6, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Nov. 7, 1968.
  8. “Book Three: Country Briefings,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00827A000700060001-4, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, February 1967.
  9. Ibid.
  10. “North Korean Intentions and Capabilities With Respect to South Korea,” SNIE 14.2-67, Central Intelligence Agency, 0001218147, Sept. 21, 1967 [online]
  11. “Book Three: Country Briefings,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00827A000700060001-4, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, February 1967.
  12. “Armed Incidents Along the Korean DMZ,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00826A001400010033-4, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Nov. 8, 1966.
  13. “Book Three: Country Briefings,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00827A000700060001-4, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, February 1967.
  14. Lee Tae-hoon, “S. Korea raided North with captured agents in 1967,” Korea Times, Feb. 7, 2011. [Online]
  15. DMZ Incidents and North Korean Agent Infiltration, March 7, 1967, RG 59, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of the Country Director for Korea, Subject Files 1966-1974, Box 1, MIL DMZ Incidents 1967.
  16. Letter from William P. Bundy to Secretary of State, Subject: Your Meeting with General Bonesteel, 12:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 7, 1967. Briefing Memorandum, Dec. 7, 1967, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1967-1969, Box 2263, POL KOR N KOR S.
  17. Lee Tae-hoon, “S. Korea raided North with captured agents in 1967,” Korea Times, Feb. 7, 2011. [Online]
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. RG 59, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of the Country Director for Korea, Subject Files 1966-1974, Box 5, POL 27 Symington Subcommittee 1970, Questions and Answers.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. “(UNTITLED),” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP70B00338R000200220044-4 CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Oct. 4, 1967.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Telegram No. 117531 from U.S. Embassy Seoul to State Department, Feb. 19, 1968 RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1967-1969, Box 2268, POL 33-7 KOR N-US.
  31. Norimitsu Onishi, “South Korean Movie Unlocks Door on a Once-Secret Past,” The New York Times, Feb. 15, 2004. [Online]
  32. “ROK DefMin: ROK Commandos Murdered by Fellow Soldiers in 1968, 1970 [Version 1],” Yonhap News Agency, July 13, 2006.
  33. Norimitsu Onishi, “South Korean Movie Unlocks Door on a Once-Secret Past,” The New York Times, Feb. 15, 2004. [Online]
  34. “ROK DefMin: ROK Commandos Murdered by Fellow Soldiers in 1968, 1970 [Version 1],” Yonhap News Agency, July 13, 2006.
  35. Norimitsu Onishi, “South Korean Movie Unlocks Door on a Once-Secret Past,” The New York Times, February 15, 2004. [Online]
  36. “Special Operations: In the Enemy’s Backyard,” Fact Sheet, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, May 12, 2015. [Online]
  37. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “Korean People’s Army: 766th Independent Unit, 1949-1950,” Paper Prepared for the Sept. 10–14, 2007 United Nations Command, Special Operations Forces in Korea Conference, Seoul, Korea, September 2007.


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