It could never have worked.
In a conversation with former Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance, acting as a White House envoy, Park shared his suspicions. “Now the pattern is changing,” he said, according to a summary of the talks. “[The North Koreans] are setting the stage for open aggression against South Korea.” But U.S. officials didn’t see it that way. In reports over the weeks following the incidents, the CIA averred that the Blue House raid was “probably the beginning of a stepped-up Communist terrorist campaign” but that “nothing the North Koreans have done suggests they are about to embark on large-scale hostilities.”
Thirty-one shadows crept up to the fence in the cold winter night, cut it and slipped through, walking into the American side of the demilitarized zone that buffers North and South Korea. It was January 1968 and the North Korean special operations troops were headed south.
The men were from the 124th Army Unit, an elite military organization charged with carrying out guerilla operations against the North’s sworn enemies to the south.
They were dressed in coveralls with South Korean military uniforms underneath and heavily-armed, each soldier carrying a submachine gun, a pistol, eight grenades and an anti-tank mine. Their missions, in the words of one the troops, was to “cut off [South Korean president] Park Chung-hee’s head and, after that, to shoot his important lieutenants to death.”
As the team crossed into the DMZ, North Korean propaganda radio thundered with a call from North Korean president Kim Il-sung to strike the United States and “split its forces to the maximum degree.” The world, he implored, must “tie the U.S. up wherever it put its feet so that it cannot move around freely.”
The 124th’s attempt to assassinate South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee would be the most dramatic act in Kim’s roughly three year campaign to make good on the pledge to be thorn in the side of the United States and its allies. Since the fall of 1966, he had unleashed a campaign of guerrilla warfare and subversion aimed at trying to sow chaos within the South Korean interior.
The raiders would bring that war right to Park’s doorstep, but no farther. The failed attempt would prove the high water mark of Kim’s campaign, after which the hopes of a popular uprising would fade.
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