Imagine an elite division of Cuban troops infiltrating the USA, making their way to Washington, D.C. and killing the President in a daring and direct raid on the White House. Or perhaps a secret squad of SS officers landing on the moonlit shores of eastern England before making their way undetected to London and then assaulting Number 10 Downing Street and assassinating Winston Churchill. Do these seem too far-fetched? The plotlines of a grubby thriller? Maybe. But in the Blue House Raid, North Korean commandos attempted an equally daring and unlikely attack.
In recent weeks, North Korea has been in the news as it threatens preemptive nuclear annihilation for its enemies. No other state can quite match People’s Republic of Korea for rogue and unpredictable behavior; the regime in Pyongyang is as close as the world gets to a textbook Bond-style villain.
But even a country that routinely shocks the world with its peculiarly antagonistic behavior can still surprise. And few things could be as surprising as a covert attack on the executive mansion that is both home to your enemy’s leader and symbol of the nation’s government.
The Blue House is the South Korean equivalent of America’s White House, France’s Élysée Palace or the UK’s 10 Downing Street. It is the primary residence of the President of the Republic of Korea and also serves as an executive and administrative centre. It is symbolic of government authority and is frequently employed as a metonym to refer to South Korea’s executive.
By 1968, North and South Korea’s 15 year-long armistice had been threatened by a series of provocations. The two sides stared uneasily across the Korean Demilitarized Zone – a border that, despite its name, is made up of 160 miles of the world’s densest military concentration. Whilst many feared an incident could flare up into conflict, South Korean commanders had no idea of what North Korea was planning – a direct attack on their head of state.
North Korea’s special forces really do earn their special stripes. They train at altitude in the mountains of north-eastern North Korea and do so in all weathers and under punishing additional constraints such as their standard issue 30kg pack. From this already elite group, North Korea’s military leaders selected the most promising for a suicidal raid.
North Korea’s plan was simple yet audacious; a highly trained death squad would be sent to penetrate South Korea and infiltrate its capital, Seoul. Once there, they would make their way to the Blue House and assissinate President Park Chung-hee. To ensure they were physically and psychologically prepared, the group was subjected to two years of combat and fitness training. They would become experts in trekking, self-sufficiency and navigation. The last 15 days of their training made the target of their mission very clear – they spent these two weeks preparing in a full mock-up of the Blue House.
On 16 January 1968, the 31-strong unit of highly trained Communist commandos left their garrison in Yonson County in the border province of North Hwanghae. One day later they infiltrated the Korean Demilitarized Zone and a few hours after this they had made it into South Korea. Their destination was still three hard days march away, but disaster arrived before they could reach the capital.
The North Korean unit had camped on Simbong Mountain, attempting to avoid any detection by South Korean forces. They achieved this, but could not conceal themselves from the locals. Two brothers had been out in the forested slopes of the mountain collecting firewood. They stumbled on the North Koreans and, amazingly, were released with a stern warning not to tell the authorities. The two brothers made it back home and immediately told the police.
The South Korean authorities immediately raised the alarm and heightened security across the peninsula. Patrols were sent out into the mountains to try and flush out the Communists, but the unit managed to make it to Seoul and regrouped at the planned rendezvous point. They managed to make it across the city, avoiding a number of checkpoints and police lines, before they were challenged.
With their chance of a surprise attack well and truly foiled, Unit 124 launched a savage attack on the police with automatic weapons and grenades. They then separated and fled back towards North Korea. Of the 31 original members of the group, 29 were confirmed dead. One was captured by South Korean forces and a single member is thought to have made it back to North Korea.
Could the North Korean death squad have succeeded? Possibly. An article in the New York Times provides far more detail on the raid and highlights how a chance encounter with a group of South Korean peasants put paid to any chance of a surprise attack. If they had killed the villagers, perhaps they would have made it undetected all the way to the Blue House. What would have happened then is one of history’s choicest counterfactuals.
Much has changed between 1968 and today, but the threat from North Korea is still resonant. A wonderfully bucolic turn is that part of the mountain path used by the retreating North Koreans has been turned into a hiking trail for hikers.