The year was 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in American military history. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive and North Korea captured the American spy ship Pueblo outside its territorial waters. Riding high on his “victory” over the United States, Kim Il Sung and the North Korean military mounted its most daring provocation to date.
They were going to assassinate South Korea’s president at his home.
The North Koreans trained an elite group of 31 special operations commandos to infiltrate the South across the demilitarized zone. They were led by Kim Shin-jo, a proud revolutionary who was ready to liberate the south from the heel of American occupation.
“We thought the president there was a stooge, an American collaborator,” Kim told the LA Times in a 2010 interview. “I hated him.”
He formed the 124th Special Forces unit. Their goal was to make it to the Blue House, South Korea’s version of the White House, where President Park Chung-hee lived and worked. They were then to take photos to prove he was dead.
They broke into teams of six, dressed as South Korean troops, and crossed the border through barbed wire, observation posts, and minefields. They traversed the steep mountains and deep valleys only to immediately run into South Koreans near the DMZ.
Instead of killing their Southern cousins, Kim and the elite unit warned them not to give away their presence and sent the Southerners on their way. Of course, the South Koreans immediately told the authorities. The South Korean military launched a massive search for the commandos.
Within 200 yards of their objective, one South Korean soldier halted them to check their IDs. The North Koreans unloaded on the unprepared South Koreans — like an ISIS offensive 200 yards from the White House.
They killed 35 and wounded another 64 people. Kim Shin-jo took cover near the woods, and never even fired his weapon. He wasn’t interested in killing civilians — he wanted Park Chung-hee.
He never got the chance.
All but two of the 124th Special Forces were killed. One of them managed to evade capture, eventually returning home across the border. Kim was captured. He was shown on television in handcuffs for all of South Korea to see.
Kim was interrogated for months and eventually broke down, seeing the South Korean military’s compassion through a high-ranking officer, who convinced him the fight was between them and the North Korean regime, not the North Korean people.
Since he had not fired his weapon, Kim was forgiven for the actions of his comrades.
Eventually, Kim gave his services (and information) to the military, became a citizen, and married a South Korean. For this, the North Korean regime executed his immediate family, and — as is customary in the North — sent three generations of relatives to its Siberian prison camps.
Kim Shin-jo was reborn in many ways: he renounced his Communist upbringing and became a born-again Presbyterian minister. He leads a church of 70,000 outside of Seoul, one of the largest congregations in the world, right under the shadow of North Korean artillery.