The South Korean Unit 684

When a ceasefire to the Korean War was brokered in 1953 between UN and Communist forces, the war didn’t technically end, which caused the Korean Peninsula to remain in a state of war from 1950 through today. While it may not seem as obvious or relevant aside from the occasional threat of North Korea’s nuclear program, at one point during the 60’s the two Koreas had trained black ops teams to assassinate each the other’s leadership.

Originally, North Korea had formed Unit 124, comprised of 31 soldiers who were the reportedly the most elite soldiers in the Korean People’s Army (KPA). The goal of Unit 124 was to sneak across the DMZ, infiltrate the capital city of Seoul, and make their way to the Blue House and assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee.

Soldiers carry an image of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung during a military parade to celebrate the centenary of his birth in Pyongyang
KPA parade in Pyongyang

The training for Unit 124 was especially rigorous, as a veteran of the unit once described having to sprint for miles with 60 lbs of gear in subzero temperatures. The soldiers were all fanatically loyal to Kim il-Sung, trained to use small arms, knives, even their bare hands, and were occasionally required to sleep on top of corpses, in order to make them fearless.

Once the operation was underway, all went well until January 1968 when Unit 124’s makeshift camp was discovered by a group of four South Korean teenage siblings looking for firewood in the wooded mountains 50 km north of Seoul. They were captured and brought to the commanding officer, who had to decide what to do with four teens who threatened a mission two years in the making, personally ordered by Kim il-Sung. Surprisingly, the commander decided to instead hastily indoctrinate the teens in Communist ideals, then released them once the teens announced their loyalty to Communism. However, the teens then immediately went to the local police station and alerted them to what they saw.

Unit 124 managed to remain hidden for two days, finally reaching Seoul on Jan.21st and putting on ROK (Republic of Korea) Army uniforms. The team managed to infiltrate the grounds of the Blue House and passed a few security checkpoints by posing as a security team, when an alert sentry challenged them which instigated a shootout. The palace guards and police quickly mowed down almost all of Unit 124, with a few survivors escaping into the streets of Seoul.

kim-shin-jo
Kim Shin-jo as he is arrested

By the time it was all over, only two members of Unit 124 survived the Blue House Raid. One, Pak Jae-gyong, sneaked back across the DMZ into North Korea and eventually became a four-star general with the KPA. The second, Kim Shin-jo, was captured by the South Koreans and eventually defected in 1970, resulting in his parents and family being executed by the KPA. Ironically, Kim eventually converted to Christianity and became a pastor in Gyeonggi-do with a wife and two children. As to why, Kim said:

“I tried to kill the president. I was the enemy. But the South Korean people showed me sympathy and forgiveness. I was moved.”

Unfortunately, President Park Chung-hee did not feel the same forgiveness towards Kim il-Sung, and opted instead to return the favor. This prompted the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) to form Unit 684 three months later, a black ops hit team that would infiltrate North Korea and assassinate Kim il-Sung. Unit 684, otherwise known as 209th Detachment, 2325th Group, was also comprised of 31 people, but instead of being the most elite soldiers in the ROK Army, they would be criminals pulled off the streets for various petty crimes and offered pardons. Yang Dong-su, one of the training officers for Unit 684, described them as:

“They were the kind who would get into street fights a lot.”

muui-island
A map of Muui Island, with Silmido in the top left

Unit 684 was named after the date of its creation, April of 1968, was technically a black ops team of the ROK Air Force and was based on the island of Silmido, an uninhabited island 50 km from the city of Incheon. Training for Unit 684 was so intense that South Korean courts later said that basic human rights violations had taken place. Seven men died during training, lowering the team to 24 members. Despite this harsh training, Unit 684 would never get their mission, as relations between North and South Korea began to improve in the years following the Blue House Raid, and President Park Chung-hee didn’t feel a top-level assassination was necessary.

On Aug. 23rd, 1971, the men of Unit 684 decided that they’d had enough of the rigorous training and waiting on Silmido longer than promised by the government for orders that would never come.What happened next was one of the bloodiest chapters in the South Korean military’s history.

The night before the uprising, about ten officers went and purchased large amounts of alcohol with the permission of their superiors, and proceeded to consume the first alcohol any of the officers had for the last three years. Thus, on the morning of Aug. 23rd, almost all of the trainers were still drunk or hungover while the men of Unit 684 waited for the opportune moment. At 6 a.m., the men broke into a captain’s room and killed the officer by hitting him in the head with a hammer before moving on to the others. Only six training officers survived the mutiny, one of whom was Yang Dong-su; the other 18 out of 24 training officers were all killed in the mutiny. Yang, who was shot in the neck during the mutiny, described the men’s situation:

“They revolted because they felt that they were never going to get the chance to go to North Korea and that they would never be allowed to leave the island. They were in despair.”

unit-684-shootout
The bus in Seoul after the shootout

Unit 684 managed to escape to the mainland and hijacked a bus to Seoul, where the mutiny came to an end. After being stopped by ROK Army units in Seoul, a shootout ensued in which all but four members were either shot or committed suicide using hand grenades. The four remaining members were found guilty by a military court and executed.

After the mutiny, Unit 684 was covered up by the South Korean government. When the shootout with Unit 684 first occurred in Seoul, the government claimed they were “armed Communist agents.” No one even knew that Unit 684 had been a part of the ROK Air Force or even a part of the military until information started leaking during the 90’s. Eventually a novel about Unit 684 was written entitled Silmido, and an extremely popular movie also known as Silmido was released in 2003 that helped draw widespread attention among the South Korean people to Unit 684’s ordeal.

The South Korean government did not officially declassify a report of Unit 684 and its training until 2006, and later in 2010 the Seoul Central District Court finally ordered the government to pay 273 million Korean won to the families of the men of Unit 684. Even if they didn’t go north of the DMZ, Unit 684 still deserves to have its story told after years of confidentiality.

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