Once in the North, 124th members were supposed to brace for a long stay. “The majority of them planned to remain in the South for extended periods,” says Bermudez. “They had messengers that would bring messages back and forth and bring current intelligence and reports back to the North.”
Life could be rough for North Korean agents and commandos headed to South. The missions behind enemy lines were risky and by late 1967 South Korea had already killed 130 infiltrators and captured 43.
When asked whether he expected to survive the Blue House raid, Kim replied plainly. “I believed I would be killed and yet I came down.”
Nor was Pyongyang especially eager to get its people back once they were captured. Diplomats assessed the chances that North Korea would be willing to trade the crew of the Pueblo for captured North Korean agents as “remote” since Pyongyang valued its American quarry higher than its own guerrillas.
Moreover, North Korean propaganda disclaimed any association with the soldiers and spies it sent to the ROK, preferring instead to pretend they were part of an organic uprising against the Park dictatorship. Negotiating for the return of captured infiltrators would be amount to an implicit admission of guilt an invalidate Pyongyang’s propaganda line.
The odds against the political mission of the 124th were also daunting. Kim told reporters he thought “some [South Koreans] would agree with our mission and aid us” but the woodcutters’ reflected the suspicion and hostility that most people in the ROK showed towards the infiltrators.
North Korea had ill-prepared its troops for life beyond the DMZ, perhaps a reflection of Pyongyang’s own miscalculation about the broader viability of its guerilla campaign.
According to a 1969 CIA report, interrogations of captured infiltrators revealed that “they had been taught to expect a warm welcome from an oppressed people and instead found an anti-Communism among the South Korean people so strong that they were completely unprepared to cope with it — their own propagandists never mentioned it.”
Kim said he never expected that the Blue House raid would spark another full-scale war on the Korean peninsula but he did think it would drive a wedge between the U.S. and its South Korean allies and prompt an uprising in the ROK.
Ultimately, the operation achieved the exact opposite, strengthening the U.S. commitment to South Korean security and further alienating the country’s population from its would-be “liberators.”
This first appeared in 2017.