Spy games: A look at North Korea’s covert operations (part 2)

Read part 1 of this post here. And for additional reading, 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.

The Blue House raid in January of 1968, although daring to the point of insanity, marked the first of several failures in the North’s efforts to liberate the South by instigating a grassroots communist revolution. The assassin squad had trained two years for the job, with every detail of the mission mapped out, including figuring out the right insignia on their fake ROK uniforms.

Yet they made several simple miscalculations due to these delusions of South Korean communist sympathies. For instance, on the first day in the South, they encountered four woodcutters; they proceeded to spend the next five hours indoctrinating them in DPRK ideology rather than racing to Seoul. Furthermore, the agents released the woodcutters, who immediately reported the incident to the military. As a result, the country was on high alert when the agents entered the capital.
Though they posed as a ROK counterguerrilla unit (the irony is a bit much here), the squad was forced to split up and flee after a confrontation with a police officer. Over the next few weeks, all but one of them went down in vicious firefights, taking the lives of 31 South Korean civilians along the way.

While the last of the Blue House infiltrators were still running free, news broke on January 23 of the North Korean capture of USS Pueblo, a spyship operating under the guise of conducting oceanic research, along with the 82 crew on board (one was killed in the initial skirmish; the rest spent eleven months in DPRK captivity). Historians have since heatedly debated the extent of the link between these two incidents.

Recently declassified Eastern-Bloc documents suggest a direct relationship, with the USS Pueblo incident a ploy to divert attention away from the failed Blue House coup. A statement released to socialist allies by the DPRK read in part, “The US imperialists, who try ever more desperately to instigate a new war in Korea, yesterday allowed an armed spy ship to invade the coastal waters of the DPRK, and commit systematically hostile actions.” This position echoed earlier clashes, instigated by the DPRK but ultimately blamed on the US or ROK.

The largest operation of this period came that October, when some 120 North Korean commandos made an amphibious assault on a ROK seaside village, Kosu-dong. The naiveté of the DPRK agents could be seen in their very objective: to convince the forty hapless villagers to join the communist cause and start a revolution. This operation, known as the Ulchin-Samchok Raid, rivaled the Blue House mission in its harebrained execution; villagers, for instance, were forced to fill out application forms to join communist organizations and to listen to speeches championing the noble DPRK cause. Again, the commandos failed to comprehend the extent of anti-communist sentiments in the South, as villagers quickly escaped to warn the authorities. Most of the agents managed to escape back north.

Ironically, the DPRK’s attempts to undermine the ROK only solidified the South’s anti-communist stance and it was ultimately miscalculation or disillusionment on Kim Il Sung’s part of communism’s appeal that led to the campaign’s failure. In almost every raid, including Blue House and Ulchin-Samchok, South Korean civilians strongly opposed the crude attempts by the North Koreans to start a revolution (and often risked their lives to alert authorities of the incursions).

In response to the recurring DPRK raids, South Korea created, in February 1968, the Homeland Defense Reserve Force, the equivalent of the US National Guards. According to one historian, this program “proved to be the single most crucial step in the Second Korean Conflict … Within 6 months, 2 million enthusiastic Southern citizens, including 15,000 women joined up … While not well armed for some time, they became an invaluable information web and eventually a source of supplemental troops for regular ROK Army formations.”

But as ill advised as the North’s campaign may have appeared to the outside world, Kim Il Sung and his henchmen had struck gold, particular with the USS Pueblo. One crewmember summed it up well: “Our value to them was apparently as propaganda pawns only.” And for eleven months, the DPRK government kept the “American spies” in the public spotlight, with frequent news of their trips to the theater, concerts, and circus and confession letters printed in the Pyongyang Times.