The Buzz

In 1969, North Korea Almost Unleashed World War III (And Now We Know Why)

The intelligence community hadn’t been paying as much attention to reconnaissance coverage of North Korea before the guerrilla campaign because the country’s hadn’t been “an overly active area” over the past few years. The result was “a growing deficit in current knowledge of the North Korean military posture,” according to the National Foreign Intelligence Board. To remedy that deficit, the United States tasked an A-12 Oxcart, the CIA’s variant of the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, to fly missions over North Korea from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan as part of the Agency’s Black Shield program.

In the late spring of 1969, a 75-ton North Korean speed boat hurtled through the Yellow Sea off the western coast of South Korea on a secret mission. Its 15-man crew on board was supposed to pick up an agent operating in the South on behalf of Pyongyang’s spy services and take him back north.

It was an operation similar to many others that North Korean intelligence had carried out over the past two years as it flooded its enemy, the Republic of Korea, with infiltrators.

The boat’s crew came ashore on at midnight Heuksan Island looking for its agent. Instead, they found South Korean security forces and a firefight waiting for them.

All 15 were killed in the shootout.

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The operation’s failure was no accident. South Korean intelligence had laid what the CIA later called “a carefully prepared trap” for the exfiltration team. A month prior, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, or KCIA, had captured the agent the team was supposed to pick up, turned him into a double agent and used him as bait.

Since the fall of 1966, North Korea had waged a guerrilla campaign against South Korea in an attempt to needle the South Korean and American militaries and foment popular unrest against the government of Pres. Park Chung-hee. But South Korea was getting better at finding and disrupting Pyongyang’s agents. And North Korea’s floundering war effort was coming to a close.

The remaining years of the 1960s would see more bouts of violence from North Korean forces. The 124th Army Unit which had tried to kill Park would try one last, desperate guerrilla raid inside the ROK. And North Korean forces would once again attack Americans, shooting down a Navy EC-121 spy plane.

But by the beginning of the 1970s, it was clear that Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla campaign had come to a close, having ended in failure.

The assassins North Korea sent to kill the South Korean president came perilously close to the presidential residence, but their mission was a flop. Park was still alive after the raid and the South Korean people rallied around him afterwards in revulsion at the attempt, rather than rising up against his government.

In a 1970 National Intelligence Estimate, the CIA assessed that North Korea had mostly given up on the campaign of dramatic raids and terrorist attacks as means of undermining the ROK. Violence at the border had plummeted and North Korea was sending infiltrators for political espionage in the ROK rather than guerrilla warfare.

South Korea had responded early to the uptick in violence from North Korea that began in the fall of 1966, beefing up its counter-infiltration capabilities. The Korean National Police grew into a 40,000-strong force in 1967 and added new resources to its coastal patrol unit designed to catch seaborne infiltrators.

Later that year, President Park Chung-hee issued Presidential Instruction Number 18, which reorganized responsibilities for counter-infiltration and internal security among South Korean security agencies. United Nations Command forces provided support to ROK authorities in the funded by with $28 million in American funding.

After the Blue House raid, the United States again topped up aid to the South Korean military with an additional $100 million supplemental requested by President Lyndon Johnson and approved by Congress.

Cooperation from ordinary South Korean civilians was critical for the effort. Pyongyang was adept at getting spies and commandos into the ROK, but the lack of a political base for the infiltrators gave them little to work with once there.

Instead, South Koreans often reported the presence of infiltrators to the police, as they had in the days before the Blue House raid. The country was deeply anti-communist at the time, but ROK officials also incentivized their cooperation with rewards for information.

Tipsters could get 200,000 won — $660 in late 1960s U.S. dollars — for information leading to the successful capture of an agent, dead or alive. They could also claim a 50-percent cut of any money agents had on them once captured.

Intelligence on what was going on above the demilitarized zone, however, could be hard to come by as the North had buttoned-up in preparation for its low-intensity war with the ROK. By 1967, American spies found that “clandestine and defector reporting on North Korean military activities is greatly diminished due to tightened internal security.”