“The men chosen for the task were reputed to be among the best the totalitarian regime had to offer. All had been rigorously trained to survive in hostile country.”
FOUR YOUNG SOUTH KOREAN BROTHERS got more than they bargained for while out searching for firewood one chilly afternoon in January of 1968. As the teenaged siblings foraged for kindling on a wooded mountainside some 50 km north of Seoul, they accidentally stumbled into the hidden camp of a platoon of North Korean commandos.
Sentries guarding the site’s perimeter quickly fell upon the hapless visitors and brought them at gunpoint to their commander.
To the officer in charge of the 31-man team, these sudden and unexpected guests threatened undermine the group’s top secret mission, one that had been planned for two full years on the personal orders of none other than the communist dictator Kim Il-Sung.
Known as Unit 124, the hand-picked team had slipped across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas just three days earlier bypassing U.S. Army sentries along the way.
Once inside enemy territory, the infiltrators traversed the frigid Imjin River and stealthily made their way through the rugged mountains towards the South Korean capital Seoul. The group’s objective was to storm the executive mansion, known as the Blue House, and assassinate President Park Chung-hee.
The men chosen for the task were reputed to be among the best the totalitarian regime had to offer. All had been rigorously trained to survive in hostile country. All were masters of combat with small arms and knives as well as their bare hands. And all were fanatically loyal to the “Great Leader”. One Unit 124 veteran remembered how as part of their training, new recruits were expected to sprint miles over rough terrain in sub-zero temperatures while hauling 60 lbs. of gear. To toughen them up further, members were sometimes made to sleep on top of corpses. “It made us fearless,” he recalled. 
Amazingly, instead of ruthlessly disposing of their four unwelcome guests, the officer in charge of Unit 124 arrived at a bewildering decision: the prisoners would be persuaded of the virtues of communism and set free. The brothers were subjected to an ad hoc field indoctrination lecture, after which all four shrewdly proclaimed themselves converts to their captors’ ideology. Once released, the brothers immediately made for the nearest police station to report the bizarre encounter.
South Korean and U.S. forces immediatley went on alert and within hours of the incident, army troops and police units fanned out across the region in search of the invaders.
Battle of the Blue House
For two days, the men of Unit 124 evaded all pursuers and continued on towards their objective. On the evening of Jan. 21, they reached the outskirts of the capital. After donning South Korean army uniforms, the platoon entered the grounds of the presidential palace. Posing as a security detail, the infiltrators passed through a series of security posts, but as they closed to within 100 yards of the target, an alert sentry challenged them. Without warning, the invaders opened fire. Palace guards and police officers returned the fusillade and within minutes, Unit 124 was decimated. Outnumbered, outgunned, and having lost the initiative, the commandos scattered and made for the safety of the north. Government troops pursued the fleeing raiders through the streets of Seoul. A running gun battle ensued. Before the night was over, 92 South Koreans had become casualties of the firefight, among them nearly two-dozen civilians who were on a bus that passed through the line of fire. For its part, Unit 124 suffered grievous losses. Most of its members were mowed down in the opening minutes of the assault or in the shoot-out that followed. At least one evaded capture by killing himself with a hand grenade.
With the capital finally secure, South Korean and U.S. Army units rushed into the mountains north of the city to cut off the remaining raiders’ escape route. Over the next 72 hours, the remnants of Unit 124 were hunted down and killed one by one. Four American GIs also died in the clashes. By the end, 29 of the 31-man commando team were dead; one survivor managed to slip back across the border while the other was taken prisoner.
The Blue House Raid marked a low point in a period of already bad relations between the two Koreas. However, the deadly attack would be overshadowed by yet another crisis, which took place just days later: the USS Pueblo incident.
The only member of Unit 124 to be taken alive was a 27-year-old commando named Kim Shin-Jo. After months of brutal interrogations, the young communist soldier was befriended by some of his captors. He soon defected to the south and in 1970 was offered full citizenship. Today he works as a church pastor in Seoul. He is 72.
“I tried to kill the president. I was the enemy,” he told CNN in a 2010 interview. “But the South Korean people showed me sympathy and forgiveness. I was moved.”
South Korea’s president felt no such goodwill for the regime in Pyongyang following the attempt on his life, however. Shortly after the attack, he ordered his armed forces to retaliate in kind. Accordingly, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) organized its own assassination squad to carry out a strike on the communist leader Kim Il Sung. The team, which like the north’s Unit 124 was also made up of 31 members, was dubbed Unit 684. strangely, recruits were not the military’s elite. Instead, mission planners combed the nation’s prisons for hardened criminals to carry out the daring raid. The convicts signed on to the risky mission in exchange for pardons. All were subjected to rigorous training on an uninhabited island off South Korea’s west coast — so rigorous in fact, seven of the volunteers perished during the preparations. It would all be for nothing.
Seoul’s convict commandos never would see action in North Korea. Their mission was scrubbed amid a period of improving relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In August of 1971, Unit 684 mutinied, murdered their handlers and escaped from their island training ground. After making their way to Seoul, the two-dozen fugitives hijacked a civilian bus, but were intercepted by South Korean army units inside the capital. All but four of the group were killed in the ensuing firefight. The survivors were tried by military courts and sentenced to death in 1972. Afterwards, the government in Seoul covered up the entire debacle, but details emerged in the 1990s. In fact, Unit 684’s story became the subject of a highly successful 2003 film entitled Silmido (named after the island where the group was trained). Families of the team-members eventually sued the state for compensation. In 2010, the courts ordered Seoul to pay nearly $300 million in damages to the relatives of unit members.
(Originally Published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Sept. 20, 2013)