SEOUL – Kim Shin Jo has no doubt where the mission went wrong: a crucial miscalculation that prevented his team of 31 elite North Korean commandos from assassinating then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee 45 years ago.
“Had we killed them all, no alert would have been raised and I suspect we would have been able to achieve our objective,” Kim said.
The “them” were four South Korean villagers the commandos encountered on Jan. 19, 1968, some 36 hours into what remains the most daring cross-border raid carried out in the six decades since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The commandos’ target was the presidential Blue House in Seoul, where they planned to corner and execute Park, who had seized power in a military coup seven years earlier.
His assassination would, Pyongyang hoped, trigger a popular insurrection against the South Korean government and the U.S. armed forces in the South and, eventually, a full-scale conflict.
The team had cut through the wire fence of the heavily mined demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas shortly before midnight on Jan. 17, within 30 meters of a manned U.S. military position.
The infiltration went smoothly and they made rapid progress toward Seoul when they suddenly came across the four villagers who were out cutting wood.
According to Kim, a fierce debate ensued over whether or not to kill them. For reasons never entirely explained, they opted to offer the four some on-the-spot ideological training, and then let them go with a stern warning not to raise the alarm.
The villagers promptly went to the police and alerted them.
The commandos still managed to get within a few hundred meters of the Blue House before they were confronted by South Korean security forces.
A vicious gunbattle broke out and the commandos scattered, only to be picked off in a series of encounters that lasted more than a week as South Korean troops swept the surrounding countryside.
In the end, all but two of the infiltrators were shot dead. Kim was captured, while another commando reportedly made it all the way back to the North.
A bound Kim was paraded in front of the TV cameras and, asked what his mission had been, famously responded: “I came to cut Park Chung-hee’s throat.”
After his capture, Kim was interrogated for about a year and then, much to his surprise, was released, partly on the grounds that he had never discharged his firearm. He publicly renounced the North, married a South Korean woman, converted to Christianity and finally became a pastor.
Park Chung-hee, meanwhile, was assassinated in 1979 — but at the hands of his own security chief.