But the purges came in the context of a broader reorganization of North Korean leadership and society that had been underway as Kim Il-sung tried to consolidate his hold over the country.
Since the end of the Korean War, Kim had been purging anyone who could pose a threat to his leadership of the country. North Korean officials whom he viewed as too close to the twin communist powers of China and the Soviet Union were first on the chopping block followed by South Korean communists who had taken up residence in North Korea during the Korean War.
By the late 1960s, Kim started to take aim at a faction within the North Korean military dubbed the “partisan generals” whom he’d brought to power and put in charge of his covert war. The clique was comprised of veterans of the resistance against Imperial Japan during the World War II — men such as Kim Chang-pong and Gen. Choe Kwang who had fought alongside the North Korean leader in his days.
As his guerilla campaign looked increasingly like a blunder, Kim began to ditch some of the partisan generals. “Kim picked out a group of people that he was already trying to get rid of. He took down scapegoats and they were held responsible” says Michael Madden, an expert on North Korean leadership and a visiting scholar at the U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
“It was also a matter of migrating control for these operations from the military and from these partisan generals to civilian intelligence people — with the giant caveat that everyone in North Korea is in the military in some form or another,” Madden adds.
After the traumatic opening to 1968, South Korea enjoyed a period of calm throughout the early infiltration season as violence and guerilla activity dipped.
It didn’t last.
In late Oct. 1968, 120 special operations troops from the North’s 124th Army Unit came ashore at Ulchin on the eastern coast of the ROK, landing at a spot near where the 766th Independent Unit had carried out a rear-area operation during the Korean War.
CIA reporting indicated that the troops were supposed to stay for a little over a week followed by a nearly three week trek up north to cross the DMZ and return home. Pyongyang had tasked them with collecting intelligence on the ROK military, scouting for locations that could be used as bases for future operations and recruiting local intelligence sources.
The soldiers divided up into teams and spread out. One of them seized the residents of a local village and carried out a communist indoctrination session, making the locals apply to be members of the Korean Workers Party. In front of the assembled crowd, the commandos picked out a man and beat him to death as an act of propaganda.
In a later report, the CIA noted grimly that it was “ the first instance of armed propaganda since the Korean War.”
South Korean security forces sprung into action and in the weeks that followed began hunting down the infiltrators. The hunt claimed the lives of 63 civilians but it was an even bigger disaster for the 124th. Of the 120 soldiers who had landed on Ulchin, only seven were taken alive. South Korean forces killed 110 of them and just three remained unaccounted for.
After the landing, the CIA worried about the prospect of more large-scale raids. North Korea was expanding its paramilitary forces and adding winter training to their curriculum — a sign that it could be gearing up to press through the usual lull in operations that came in winter.
A few months into the new year, North Korea provoked the United States again, shooting down an EC-121 spy plane flying over the Sea of Japan and killing all 31 crew members aboard. But over the course of 1969, DMZ incidents would plummet 80 percent over the previous year and the 124th wouldn’t venture south again for another daring invasion.
Kim Il-sung’s war was coming to a close and the violence that had marked the tense years from 1966 to 1969 would eventually recede back to the usual rhythm of the uneasy North-South relationship.
The CIA assessed that Kim Il-sung had embarked on his guerrilla adventure in the latter half of the 1960s for a variety of reasons, many having to do with anxiety and opportunism related to the U.S. and South Korean participation in the Vietnam war.
But analysts also detected a hint of regret behind the covert push. South Korea was a political tinderbox in the early 1960s when a military coup that brought Kim’s nemesis Park to power. The Agency felt that Pyongyang’s push for revolution in the South was, at least in part, an attempt not to be caught flat-footed again.
As he began building the infrastructure for his covert war in the mid 1960s, Kim reportedly lamented that if “there had been 50 hard-core Marixst-Leninsts to properly plan and direct the riots, revolution in South Korea could have been accomplished in either April 1960 or May 1961.”
By the close of the decade, Kim Il-sung had sent hundreds of communist spies and commandos to the ROK. In the end, Kim found himself farther away from the dream of stirring a revolution than he was when the conflict began.
This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.