The Great Leader’s Shadow War

Uncategorized May 24, 2016 War Is Boring 0

Propaganda poster of the late North Korean president Kim Il-sung. Photo via Wikipedia In the late 1960s, North Korean president Kim Il-sung sent commandos...
Propaganda poster of the late North Korean president Kim Il-sung. Photo via Wikipedia

In the late 1960s, North Korean president Kim Il-sung sent commandos to infiltrate South Korea

by ADAM RAWNSLEY

This is the first story in a series.

In the fall of 1966, things really began to change on the Korean Peninsula.

The armistice agreement that had marked the de facto end of the Korean War in 1953 had created a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, a buffer area intended to keep the two countries at a remove.

It didn’t always work. In the years since the ceasefire, the DMZ would be home to occasional clashes which served as brief reminders that the two countries were technically still at war. In 1965, North Korean forces killed 20 South Korean soldiers and four in the year before that. [1]

But starting in mid-October, the atmosphere along the DMZ took a dark turn, foreshadowing a bloody end to the decade. North Koreans, often intelligence agents looking to cross the border through the DMZ, had generally avoided U.S. and South Korean patrols so they could slip through unnoticed. [2]

Now, North Korean forces were heavily armed and actively seeking them out. In a five-day period starting on Oct. 13, 1966, North Korean troops carried out five ambush attacks against soldiers from the Republic of Korea. [3]

U.S. president Lyndon Johnson was scheduled to visit South Korea in a few weeks, but the CIA dismissed the idea that the violence was related. A Presidential Daily Brief offered instead that Pyongyang might be looking to test the mettle of a handful of units that Seoul had recently deployed to the DMZ. [4]

Then on Nov. 2, just as Johnson was about to end his trip to South Korea, a North Korean ambush killed six American troops and one South Korean soldier. [5]

The incidents marked the opening salvos in a campaign of subversion and guerrilla warfare that plunged the Korean Peninsula into violence throughout the late 1960s. Kim Il-sung, founder of the Stalinist dynasty that has ruled North Korea since 1948, had decided to send hundreds of commandos and intelligence operatives to the South to recruit disaffected citizens, carry out acts of sabotage, attack U.S. and ROK troops and build the covert infrastructure to foment a communist revolution.

Intelligence analysts at the time offered a range of motives as to why Kim embarked on his guerrilla campaign of the late 1960s. Explanations included a desire to stir up discontent with the dictatorship of South Korean president Park Chung-hee and put pressure on South Korean forces as the country’s military was also fighting Pyongyang’s comrades in Vietnam. [6]

Regardless of the intent, the efforts ultimately failed. Kim and his covert warriors fundamentally misjudged the political climate among South Koreans, whose staunch opposition to communism and North Korea proved a hostile climate for the North’s attempts to sow revolution.

North Korea began expanding the infrastructure for its revolutionary campaign as early as 1965. Interrogations of captured agents revealed that North Korea’s intelligence agencies started ramping up the training of agents that year and including guerrilla warfare instruction in their curriculum. [7] By 1967, Pyongyang’s spy agencies would be able to crank out an estimated 500 agents a year. [8]

There were also overt hints of a shift in policy. Shortly before the mid-October clashes, Kim Il-sung gave a speech to the Korean Worker’s Party in which he promised a more aggressive line towards both the the South and the United States. Kim thundered that the time had come for revolution in the ROK and that it must be achieved by “violent and nonviolent struggles, legal and illegal struggles.” [9]

Kim also called for fellow communists around the world to rise up against the United States, particularly in Vietnam. A victory against America there, he argued, would shatter the “illusion” of American military might. [10]

After November 1966, the DMZ went quiet again. Incidents along in the border traditionally followed a seasonal pattern and so the lull wasn’t altogether surprising. Since 1953, the North had sent intelligence operatives into DMZ. [11]

In general, North Korean infiltration attempts would peak in the fall and then taper off from November through February. Winter brought the added difficulty of snow and stripped the trees and bushes around the border of their leaves, making concealment harder for agents looking to avoid discovery. [12]

When warm weather came, the operations would start up again. [13]

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

By the summer of 1967, incidents along the DMZ had already spiked dramatically over previous years, with an uptick in North Korean reconnaissance probes on the positions of United Nations Command forces, comprised of American and South Korean forces operating under U.N. auspices. [14]

The CIA reported that there had been some 200 encounters that year, compared with just 44 in 1966. [15]

The campaign of harassment wasn’t just limited to humans. That summer, Time magazine reported that the Korean People’s Army, aware that the ROK used male dogs to search the border for intruders, began patrolling their side with female dogs in heat in a comic attempt at subversion against South Korea’s canine troops. [16]

Beyond the DMZ, North Korean intelligence increased the number of operatives it sent farther into South Korea. As many as 60 North Korean armed agents split up into nine teams were now inside the South with an estimated 10,000 South Korean security forces trying to track them down. [17]

The agents were staying in the South for longer than they used to and “making greater use of radio and clandestine means of communication,” according to the State Department. [18]

They were also taking on a new mission. The CIA warned that the agents were “attempting sabotage missions for the first time since the Korean Armistice.” [19]

In the spring, the North began to increase its use of covert seaborne landings to sneak operatives into the ROK. [20]

North Korean intelligence started expanding the maritime infrastructure to support these covert landings as early as 1965 and by 1970 reconnaissance photos and defector interrogations indicated that the Pyongyang had expanded the number of sea infiltration bases along the North Korean coasts from six to 20. [21]

The bases, scattered along its eastern and western coasts, resembled fishing villages from the outside but often contained housing for troops and their families as well as docking facilities where infiltration boats could berth. [22]

The boats looked like fishing vessels and could move at a speedy 30- to 35-knot clip, allowing agents to travel farther and faster into the ROK than infiltration by foot would allow across the border. In the event of a confrontation with South Korean forces, the boats came packed recoilless rifles and deck guns. [23]

Captured infiltration boats were often between 75 and 80 feet long and could hold as many as 40 men. [24]

But it was the mission of the military officers on these amphibious landings that signaled trouble ahead. Pyongyang instructed the men to move into the South Korean interior, scout for locations that could serve as a springboard for guerrilla operations and then head home before the cold weather arrived again. [25]

At left — Pukchang-po sea infiltration base as it appears in April 1970 National Photographic Interpretation Center report. At right — Pukchang-po facility, highlighted in black by author, in a declassified KH-9 HEXAGON satellite image from Dec. 29, 1975. Photos via USGS

The machinery of covert war

When Kim Il-sung kicked off his secret war in the late 1960s, his covert bureaucracy was often reading from a playbook that had been honed both before and during the Korean War.

Before the war, North Korea trained personnel for infiltration and guerrilla war with the help of the Kangdong Political Institute. The Institute, created in 1947, instructed roughly 630 agents with military training to spur a revolution in the south. When the agents were sent South in 1949 and failed to bring about the hoped-for uprising, Kangdong closed its doors. [26]

The Hoeryong Cadres School took over Kangdong’s work and its staff and instructors comprised much of the personnel for a newly established guerrilla outfit, the 766th Independent Unit. The 766th, commanded by the Hoeryong school’s leader, General O Chin-u, would later become a model for the guerrilla units the North established in the 1960s. [27]

During the Korean War, it carried out a series of amphibious landings on the east coast of the Korean peninsula in the opening days of the Korean war, including one at Ulchin where, some 18 years later, its successors in the 124th Army Unit would come ashore in nearly the same spot. [28]

The Reconnaissance Bureau, created in 1948, carried out some agent operations during the Korean War. It used a host of recruits, drawn primarily from those with family backgrounds in the South, to collect intelligence on military targets, dressing them in civilian clothes and plying them with gold to pay for their operations. [29]

By the 1960s, a rough division of labor emerged between the various units for each activity in South Korea and along the DMZ. Not that it was always respected — responsibilities often overlapped and the North’s covert organs sometimes jockeyed among each other for favor and status within the North’s security bureaucracy. [30]

For political operations, agent recruitment and seaborne infiltration, the Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party took the lead. [31]

Along the DMZ, Foot Reconnaissance stations collected intelligence on U.S. and South Korean forces guarding the other side of the border, occasionally provoking firefights but rarely venturing into South Korea itself. [32]

Guerrilla operations fell to the Reconnaissance Bureau and the units under its command. The Bureau’s 124th Army Unit, in particular, would end up carrying out some of the most daring operations throughout the period [33]

The 124th had evolved out out of a predecessor unit, the 283rd Army Unit. “The 283rd was established in 1965 and had limited success in political operations in South Korea,” says Joseph S. Bermudez, an expert on the North Korean military and intelligence issues. “It was later deactivated and Some of its personnel used to establish absorbed by the 124th Army Unit.” [34]

This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History – Fiftieth Anniversary Edition

North Korea also used its relationship with Chosen Soren, an organization of Korean residents living in Japan whose members sometimes carried out intelligence work for Pyongyang, to bank shot agents into the South. It managed the channel primarily through the Ministry of Public Security but sometimes through the Korean Workers’ Party Culture Department, which generally carried out psychological operations and propaganda work. [35]

Reports on Chosen Soren passed to the U.S. by Japanese diplomats in 1969 indicated that North Korean intelligence was using Chosen Soren to disguise the travel and indoctrination of potential agents recruited for intelligence operations in the South. [36]

The reports indicated that Chosen Soren would “capture” South Koreans who had illegally entered Japan while looking to defect to North Korea. Before authorities learned about their presence, members of the group would hide the recruits for a few months and then secretly ship them off to North Korea for “education.” [37]

North Korea would send them back into Japan to present themselves to the authorities, after which they’d be deported back to the ROK for illegally entering the country. [38]

The case of one South Korean man, investigated by Osaka Prefectural Police and the Moriguchi Police Station, shows a variation of the scheme. Japanese police alleged that the 38-year-old factory worker had wanted to defect to North Korea for some time while working in a Korean factory in Saigon, planning to make the trip to the North either through Cambodia or Hong Kong. [39]

During a layover in Osaka on his way home in late January 1969, Japanese authorities alleged that the man decided to defect to North Korea. He found a Chosen Soren school in Osaka where members quickly realized his potential as an agent. After receiving instruction on “the superiority of socialism,” the report alleges that Chosen Soren members forced the man to abandon his plans to defect and instead to return home to foment revolution there. [40]

Armed with a cover story to hide his association with the group, the man reported himself to Japanese officials, was arrested, sentenced to 10 months of penal servitude and deported back to South Korea in lieu of serving out his sentence. [41]

A photo of a North Korean sea infiltration vessel from an April 1970 National Photographic Interpretation Center report

Before the storm

1967 would end with a sharp increase in North Korean attacks against U.N. and American troops. North Korean agents had also begun sabotage operations, damaging two South Korean railways in September. [42]

But it was only a prelude for what Pyongyang had in store for its neighbor to the south. In December, Kim Il-sung would once again pledge to forcibly reunify the Korean peninsula. [43] Within a matter of weeks, the North would set it motion its most dramatic effort to fulfill that promise.

Author’s note — dates for declassified CIA documents listed in the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) database are often dramatically inconsistent with the dates marked on the documents themselves and sometimes predate events described within. Where possible, the dates marked on CREST documents themselves have been used in lieu of those in the CREST database.

References

  1. “Weekly Summary,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79-00927A005500050001-8, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Nov. 10, 1966.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “The President’s Daily Brief,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00936A004800020001-2, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Oct. 20, 1966. [online]
  5. “N. Koreans Kill GIs,” UPI via Desert Sun, Number 77, Nov. 2, 1966. [online]
  6. “North Korean Intentions and Capabilities With Respect to South Korea,” SNIE 14.2–67, Central Intelligence Agency, 0001218147, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Sept. 21, 1967. [online]
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Central Intelligence Bulletin,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00975A010200150001-1, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Aug. 17, 1967. [online]
  9. (Untitled), Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP70B00338R000200220040-8, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, no date given.
  10. “North Korean Intentions and Capabilities With Respect to South Korea,” SNIE 14.2-67, Central Intelligence Agency, 0001218147, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Sept. 21, 1967. [online]
  11. “Weekly Summary,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79-00927A005500050001-8, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Nov. 10, 1966.
  12. Memo from EA/K Bob Dorr to EA/K Donald L. Ranard Subject, North Korean Infiltration, Oct. 19, 1971, RG 59, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of the Country Director for Korea, Subject Files 1966–1974, Box 5, POL 23-7 Infiltration. Subversion. Sabotage. (DMZ Incidents.), NARA and “Weekly Summary,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79-00927A005500050001-8, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, November 10, 1966.
  13. Ibid.
  14. “Weekly Summary,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79-00927A005900020001-7, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, June 30, 1967.
  15. Ibid.
  16. “North Korea: A Case of Frustration,” Time, June 2, 1967. [online]
  17. “Weekly Summary,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79-00927A005900020001-7, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, June 30, 1967.
  18. “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, NARA.
  19. “Security Conditions in South Korea,” Office of National Estimates, Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79R00904A001300040013-2, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, June 23, 1967.
  20. “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, NARA.
  21. “Sea Infiltration Facilities North Korea,” Photographic Interpretation Report, National Photographic Interpretation Center, CIA-RDP78T05162A000100010077-6, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, April 1970.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. “Letter Dated 2 November 1967 From the Permanent Representative of the United States of America Addressed to the President of the Security Council,” contained in (untitled), Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP70B00338R000200220044-4, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Oct. 4, 1967.
  25. “North Korean Intentions and Capabilities With Respect to South Korea,” SNIE 14.2-67, Central Intelligence Agency, 0001218147, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Sept. 21, 1967. [Online]
  26. Dae-Sook Suh, Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader, Columbia University Press, New York, 1988, Page 103. [online]
  27. 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 and Interview with Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.
  28. Ibid.
  29. “Reconnaissance Bureau of the North Korean Army General Headquarters,” Information Report, Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP82-00457R014800010003-8, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Nov. 13, 1952.
  30. Interview with Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.
  31. Memo from EA/K Bob Dorr to EA/K Donald L. Ranard Subject, North Korean Infiltration, Oct. 19, 1971, RG 59, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of the Country Director for Korea, Subject Files 1966-1974, Box 5, POL 23-7 Infiltration. Subversion, NARA.
  32. Interview with Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.
  33. Memo from EA/K Bob Dorr to EA/K Donald L. Ranard Subject, North Korean Infiltration, Oct. 19, 1971, RG 59, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of the Country Director for Korea, Subject Files 1966-1974, Box 5, POL 23-7 Infiltration. Subversion, NARA.
  34. Interview with Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Airgram from Amembassy Tokyo to State Department, Subject: Foreign Office Draft Paper: Present State of Chosen Soren and Examples of North Korean Subversion in Japan, Sept. 17, 1969, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1967-1969, Box 2263, NARA.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Document 127, Memorandum of Conversation, Subject: Mr. Bundy’s Meeting with Mr. Colby, Washington, Sept. 15, 1967, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Vol XXIX, Part 1, Korea. [online]
  43. “Principle Developments in World Communist Affairs (Jan. 23-Feb. 20, 1969),” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP78–03061A000400020003–4, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA.


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