The Blue House Raid: From Sleeping with the Dead to Man of God

This tidy band of goose-stepping psychopaths is typical of the 1.6 million combat troops North Korea maintains under arms.

North Korea is called the DPRK or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. That’s not even remotely accurate. North Korea is actually a monarchy.

Kim Il-sung earned his chops fighting the Japanese as a guerilla during WW2. When it came time to build a country he followed the Marxist playbook to the letter.

Kim Il-sung kicked off this party in 1945 pursuing unfiltered communism. In 1994 the old Marxist finally cashed in his hammer and sickle, and his son, Kim Jong-il took the reins of power.

This guy looks awfully happy for somebody who never poops. In addition to eschewing defecation, NoKo state media claimed Kim Jong-il could control the weather with his mind.

Like a proper old school despot, Kim Jong-il kept his boot on the necks of his poor starving subjects until 2011 when he, like his dad before him, died of cardiac disease. At that point, his son Kim Jong-un the Exceptionally Rotund took over.

There’s not the broad gulf between modern-day North Korea and a classical 11th-century European monarchy that you might think.

When supreme executive power passes on the strength of genetics alone that’s a monarchy. All they need is a castle with a proper moat to do it up right. We have explored this freakshow of a family in a previous effort. Here’s the link.

A common thread among all communists is that they believe that the only reason communism has failed every single time it has ever been tried is that whoever tried it was simply doing it wrong.

Just as North Korea is actually a monarchy, so their particular brand of communism is in truth a religion. Its acolytes believe in communism’s capacity to transform lives and lead to moral salvation. They preach their peculiar gospel and expect its power to propagate its own supernatural accord. In January of 1968, however, the cult of communism got dealt a serious dose of reality.

A Very Different Place

In 1968 Southeast Asia was the proxy battlefield for the Cold War super-powers. That’s a shocking lot of helicopters in a single tight frame.

The planet in 1968 was fractionated into free and enslaved. The forces of democracy and communism vied for supremacy via a variety of sordid proxy wars. Ground zero for this titanic clash of ideologies was Southeast Asia.

In 1953 the major fighting in Korea stopped, but the war never technically ended.

Then as now North and South Korea existed in a weird twilight state of smoldering conflict. The fighting ended in 1953 with a cease fire rather than an armistice, so both factions were and are still technically in a state of war. South Korea then was not the glowing beacon of freedom it is today.

This somber-looking gent was the dictator-in-residence in Seoul, South Korea, in 1968.

General Park Chung-hee seized power in South Korea in 1961 after his predecessor resigned in the face of a student-led uprising. Park guided the country through a period of unprecedented economic growth. However, he also ruled as a ruthless despot. We have delved into his story before as well. Here’s the link.

Unit 124 was indeed a merry mob of homicidal maniacs.

In 1966 Kim Il-sung directed the formation of an elite assassination squad titled Unit 124. Comprised solely of commissioned officers from the Korean People’s Army, Unit 124 trained relentlessly for two years for a single mission.

This is the Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean President. This was the objective of Unit 124.

These 31 highly-trained operators were going to infiltrate South Korea, fight their way into the Blue House, the South Korean Presidential residence, and then murder President Park Chung-hee.

The North Korean leadership believed that the South Korean people would become intoxicated by the scintillating ambrosia of Marxist totalitarian dogma.

The North Koreans believed that if they could throw President Park’s disembodied head off of the balcony at the Blue House, the downtrodden South Koreans would inexplicably rally to their communist cause, reunite the peninsula, and all would become right with the world. The reality, as is so often the case, was not quite so tidy.

Super Soldiers

In addition to proficiency with blades and firearms, the specially-trained operators of Unit 124 had to share a fart sack with a dead guy before graduating to become full-fledged North Korean militarized maniacal lunatics.

These 31 North Korean operatives trained extensively in land navigation, small arms, demolitions, and unarmed combat. Their cross country standard was a steady 8 mph pace over broken terrain with a 66-pound rucksack. In my prime, I did my share of forced marches. Those are some pretty impressive numbers. Several of the Unit 124 operators lost toes to frostbite during training. Part of their extraordinary training regimen involved sleeping atop a corpse to inculcate a resistance to hardship. Wow.

This is the location where Unit 124 cut the wire and crossed the DMZ into South Korea. It’s a tourist attraction today.

On the evening of January 17, 1968, these 31 operators cut through the wire securing the DMZ. Two days later they had covertly crossed the Imjin River and established a patrol base on Simbong Mountain. All was going according to plan.

This full-scale diorama depicts the crossing of Unit 124 operators into South Korea. The unexpected arrival of four South Korean brothers threw a serious wrench into their plans.

Early afternoon on January 19 four South Korean brothers named Woo were out gathering firewood when they inadvertently stumbled onto the North Korean bivouac site. Presuming them to be South Koreans the brothers were friendly and engaging. The Unit 124 operators subdued the unarmed men in short order. Now things got complicated.

The NoKo troops felt that one good dose of unfiltered Marxist propaganda should suffice to convert the four South Korean brothers to their cause.

SOP dictated that the NoKo troops simply liquidate the four captives and dispose of their corpses before driving on with the mission. However, the ground was hard frozen, and the communist commander appreciated that they could never dig deep enough. As a result, they opted rather to proselytize the four men into submission.

The Woo brothers wisely declared their undying enthusiasm for Kim Il-sung and his totally groovy communist trappings.

The North Korean soldiers conducted an ad hoc political indoctrination and extolled the many manifest virtues of collective living to their four erstwhile guests. The Woo brothers wisely proclaimed their complete and enthusiastic conversion to the Marxist cause.

The life-changing gospel of Vladimir Lenin lasted just long enough for the Woo brothers to get out of earshot. Then they hightailed it to the cops.

Now imbued with the holy spirit of Lenin the four were released with a stern warning not to tell anyone of their meeting. The four fresh converts maintained the charade long enough to get around the first corner and then scampered off to the Changyeon police station in Beopwonri to spill their guts. Now the fuse was lit.

Kicking Over an Anthill

Allied forces swarmed throughout the suspected area of operations of Unit 124 in an effort at keeping them from reaching their objective.

South Korean and American forces mobilized in pursuit of the North Korean hit team. Unit 124 fractionated into three and four-man cells and successfully trekked all the way to Seoul, making some fairly superhuman time in the process. They rendezvoused at the Seunggasa Temple to prepare for their actions on the objective.

Thanks to the Woo brothers, Seoul was now dirty with South Korean troops. The Unit 124 operators then changed into Republic of Korea (ROKA) Army uniforms and adopted the persona of an elite South Korean Army unit just returning from a field exercise. Thusly configured these 31 men simply marched across town to the Blue House, passing several South Korean Police and ROKA units along the way.

This is where Unit 124 operators first exchanged fire with South Korean security personnel.

Once within a few hundred meters of the Presidential residence, Jongro police chief Choi Gyushik confronted the NoKo troops. Police Chief Choi realized that something was amiss, and things went truly sideways.

The Guns

These are some of the weapons captured from Kim Shin-jo, one of only two North Korean survivors from the ill-fated Blue House mission.

Unit 124 small arms were conventional enough. The most common weapons were PPS-43 submachine guns along with Tokarev TT33 pistols and hand grenades.

The PPS-43 helped turn the tide of the war against the Nazis.

In 1942 the Nazis had the Soviet Union on the ropes. Faced with a legitimately existential threat, the Red Army fought desperately to hold the German legions at bay. One solution to this thorny crisis was the Pistolet-Pulemyot Sudayeva or “Sudayev’s Submachine Gun.” Designed as a low-cost personal defense weapon for armored crews, recon units, and support troops, the PPS-43 was all that and more.

The PPS-43 was the very image of industrial frugality.

Comprised almost entirely of pressed steel parts that could be cheaply formed in bulk by marginally-trained workers, the PPS-43 was a revolutionary weapon.

The PPSh-41 with its 71-round drum magazine was a markedly more complicated weapon to produce.

Compared to the Soviet standard PPSh-41, the PPS-43 used half as much raw steel and required a total of 2.7 hours’ worth of machine time compared to 7.3 hours for the more complicated gun. By the end of the war, the Soviets had produced around two million copies.

The PPSh-41 magazine (left) was not interchangeable with that of the PPS-43.

The PPS-43 is a simple blowback design feeding from a 35-round double-stack, double-feed box magazine that is not interchangeable with that of the PPSh-41. Where the PPSh-41 cycles at a brisk 900 rpm, the PPS-43 runs at a more sedate 600. Both guns fire the spunky 7.62x25mm bottlenecked round from the open bolt.

The crude pressed steel muzzle brake is one of the PPS-43’s most distinctive features.

The PPS-43 features a top-folding steel stock and a distinctive sheet steel muzzle brake that is as crude as it is effective. The PPS-43 weighs about 6.5 pounds empty.

The Rest of the Story

This grainy photo shows ROKA troops retrieving the body of a Unit 124 operator killed during the egress from Seoul.

There followed a most vigorous firefight wherein the valiant police chief was killed along with his assistant. Realizing they would never make it into the residence the Unit 124 commandos separated and led the ROKA and US forces on a merry chase.

The bodies of the Unit 124 operators killed during the mission were eventually interred in South Korea.

When the dust settled 26 friendlies were killed and another 66 wounded, 24 of whom were civilians. Most of the civilian casualties had been on a bus that happened into the crossfire. Four American soldiers also perished in the hunt for the remaining NoKo troops.

I’m pretty sure Pak Jae-gyong is the tall serious-looking gentleman in the middle. The North Koreans are not real chummy with the details of their press releases.

Of the 31 communist operators, 29 were eventually gunned down or committed suicide. Pak Jae-gyong escaped and evaded all the way back to North Korea where he was welcomed as a hero. He ended his military career as a General Officer and a member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which is apparently a pretty big deal.

This is Kim Shin-jo at the moment of his capture. It was later determined that his weapons had not been fired.

The last surviving NoKo operator, Kim Shin-jo, was captured hiding in a civilian home near Inwang mountain. He was subsequently interrogated for a year before being released and earning South Korean citizenship in 1970.

Kim Shin-jo was ultimately a convert to both democracy and Christianity.

When it became known that Kim was remaining voluntarily, North Korean authorities murdered his parents and his six siblings.

Kim Shin-jo eventually came to pastor a mega-church outside Seoul.

Kim eventually found forgiveness through Christ, married a South Korean woman, and had two children. He became a pastor for a church outside Seoul where he remains today. With 70,000 members, Kim’s church is the largest Presbyterian congregation in the world. It seems Christianity ultimately trumped communism.

The extraordinary life of North Korean commando Kim Sin-jo was characterized by redemption.

In a 2010 CNN interview Kim said, “I was the enemy. But the South Korean people showed me sympathy and forgiveness.”

This shot-up bus represented the final showdown of the mutinous members of the South Korean black ops hit squad recruited to kill Kim Il-sung.

In the aftermath of the Blue House raid, President Park Chung-hee directed the formation of his own Dirty Dozen suicidal hit squad, this one drawn from South Korean prisons. These convicts were trained to infiltrate North Korea and kill Kim Il-sung. Seven members of this unit died during training. When their mission was scrubbed they revolted, murdered most of their guards, and were eventually gunned down. The survivors were convicted in military tribunals and executed. The government covered up the whole sordid affair but eventually paid the families around $274,000 in compensation.

A Korean language film about the South Korean revenge operation was titled Silmido and was wildly popular.

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Hatchetman October 15, 2020, 5:34 am

    That’s pretty incredible, a great redemption story as well.

    I also have to say that the PPS-43 is an amazingly simple but surprisingly effective weapon. The Pioneer Arms semi-auto PPS-43C makes a pretty fair representation of the original. In the original 7.62×25 chambering it’s snappy, but a lot of fun on the range.

  • Jimboecv October 13, 2020, 2:09 am

    Another win for Will, nice find.

  • D.J. October 12, 2020, 2:54 pm

    After every bit of example we have , via history , of the operations
    and methods of the communists , I remain perplexed as to why so
    many of our citizens care to embolden it . Care to embrace it . Care to
    be advocates of it .
    ” Those whom do not learn from history , are condemned to
    repeat it ” , perhaps ?

  • Dean R October 12, 2020, 1:58 pm

    Great story. I really like these articles.

  • John Boutwell October 12, 2020, 1:23 pm

    I really like these articles, they show “ the rest of the story’ details and that is what makes history interesting to me.

  • Brian Holden October 12, 2020, 10:04 am

    Another fascinating and entertaining article from the one and only Dr. Will, God’s gift to those who appreciate humor and little known historical facts instead of mind numbing statistics about ballistic performance and terminal velocity.

  • Theron Ballard October 12, 2020, 8:41 am

    Wow, I did my year in Korea 98-99 at 1-72 Armor “First Tank!” Learned lots about the DMZ and spent some time in Seoul but never heard about this bit of history. KATUSA’s would have been a great way this. Great read.

  • Joe Ernst Jr October 12, 2020, 7:06 am

    Great story Will. You always have that extra detail that makes for a good read!

  • Steve October 12, 2020, 6:41 am

    A very great article to read,I enjoyed it so much. Interesting about the unit 124.

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