In celebration of the latest James Bond flick (granted, it was Die Another Day that featured blatant stereotypes about North Korean goons) and a longish piece in this week’s Harper’s on North Korea’s propaganda machine, I thought I’d give a history lesson into a period of time when North Korea was even crazier than it may seem today (for instance, did you know some 30 North Korean spies managed to get all the way to Seoul and almost assassinated the South Korean president?).
But first, some blatant plugs for additional readings. Be sure to check out former Gadling blogger Neil Woodburn’s excellent series, “Infiltrating North Korea,” from last year. I also reported from North Korea for The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor this August. And if you’re truly as obsessed about all this stuff as Neil and I, check out for part 2 tomorrow.
Anyways, so the North Korea of today, with its Lone Ranger worldview and its detachment with reality, can be traced back to the North Korea of the late 1960s, when it embarked on an unprecedented military and propaganda campaigns. But while the DPRK temporarily caused a fallout in US-ROK relations, the North failed to unify the peninsula as its heavy-handed military forays, following the “Vietnam Model”, only solidified South Korean anti-communism sentiments. Yet perhaps the most important detail of all rests in not what was, but what might have been. Quoted in the summer of 1968 in the New York Times, a top US official exclaimed, “Few people realize how close we came to war.”
Although the period 1967-1969 saw massive turmoil in Vietnam and China, the forgotten conflict on the Korean peninsula left an equally lasting legacy. North Korea permanently escaped the orbit of its two stronger communist brothers, China and the USSR, with Kim Il Sung exploiting the momentary power and attention vacuum in an attempt to become the head of the “anti-imperialist small states.”
Life is stranger than fiction. In one of the most daring covert operations of the Cold War, thirty-one North Korean agents crossed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on January 17, 1968, on a top-secret mission to assassinate Republic of Korea (ROK) President Park Chung Hee in his own bedroom. As Lieutenant Kim Shin Jo, the only captured agent, later explained, success “would agitate the South Korean people to fight with arms against their government and the American imperialists.”
Although the commandos managed to reach within 800 meters of Park’s residence in Seoul, the Blue House, they were eventually detected and a national manhunt mobilized to track down the fleeing intruders. This audacious guerrilla operation was just one of a series between 1967-1969 when Kim Il-Sung reneged on the decade-old ceasefire.
With international attention diverted to China and Vietnam, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) renewed its military offensive as a means of forcing a US-ROK split, with the goal of hastening national unification. Although Kim saw this campaign as a diversion from the country’s stalling economy and an opportunity for him to be crowned leader of the “anti-imperialist small states”, the reunification efforts ultimately failed because he did not anticipate the extent of anti-communist sentiment in the South.
Known as the “Second Korean War,” this period of aggression is often treated as an ephemeral blip on the geopolitical radar. After all, the real war had ended 14 years earlier when the peninsula became locked into a seemingly permanent stalemate. There were, granted, the occasional clashes; statistics for 1966, a typical year, included 50 North Korean DMZ crossings, 35 UN casualties, and 19 exchanges of fire.
So why was it that the very next year, military intrusions increased ten-folds to 566, UN casualties quadrupled to 122, and exchanges of fire increased six-folds to 117? The jump in border conflicts-and a new breed of well-coordinated covert operations, from the Blue House assassination attempt to the capture of a US spyship and an attempted amphibious invasion-turned out to be part of a coordinated DPRK offensive against the ROK and US. It was anything but a blip.
The escalation of conflict between 1966 and 1967 saw the sharpest jump in casualties and clashes, and arguably marked the beginning of the “Second Korean War.” One of the first major incidents was the North Korean attack and sinking of a South Korean naval patrol boat on January 19, 1967, which killed all 40 crew members.
In a trend that would continue throughout the conflict, the DPRK shifted blame to the opposing party, in this case, complaining to the United Nations Command, “Your side has used South Korean fishing boats as a shield to cover up your espionage activities … and to find a pretext for unleashing another war in Korea.” The ROK subsequently relented and restricted its own fishing boats to below the 38th parallel, a victory that emboldened the DPRK for its boldest covert operation to date.
Part 2 tomorrow!