Failed North Korean Assassin Assimilates in the South
HIS fatal mistake, the North Korean commando soon came to realize, was not killing the South Korean villagers when he had the chance. The orders were clear, if he and his fellow assassins came upon any civilians: kill them immediately, bury them and get on with the mission to slip into Seoul and kill the president.
But this was late January, the high-mountain ground was frozen, and Kim Shin-jo, a 27-year-old special forces lieutenant, did not want to go to the effort of digging graves. Instead he warned the villagers, encountered one night during the journey from the North, not to go to the authorities, after which he and his men continued on toward the Blue House, the presidential residence.
But the villagers ignored the warning and went straight to the police, who then alerted the military. “That was when it all began to unravel,” Mr. Kim said.
Dressed as South Korean soldiers, the 31 Communist commandos dodged their pursuers for three days, talked their way through various checkpoints and got to within a few hundred yards of the Blue House, where they were finally confronted. It was late morning, Jan. 21, 1968.
A ferocious gun battle broke out, and dozens of South Korean troops and civilians were killed. A school bus reportedly was caught in the cross-fire, and three American soldiers also were killed.
As the North Korean raiding party scattered and retreated northward, hunted for more than a week, all but two of the attackers committed suicide or were killed. One survivor was a commando who got back safely to the North and later became a general. The other was Mr. Kim.
AFTER a year of interrogation, he was surprised to receive a pardon, apparently because he was found not to have fired his gun. He had assumed he would be executed. After that he was reborn, first as a South Korean citizen and then as a Presbyterian minister. He met his wife a year after his release — she is the one who turned him to Christianity — and they now have two grown children. Mr. Kim said his church outside Seoul had 70,000 members, making it the largest Presbyterian congregation in the world. He is one of 80 pastors there.
The South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, recently appointed Mr. Kim, 69, to be a human rights adviser to the governing Grand National Party.
Oddly, one of the leaders of the party, and its presumptive candidate for president in 2012, is Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the late president Park Chung-hee — the very man that Mr. Kim was sent to kill in 1968. (Mr. Park was assassinated by his own spy chief, in 1979.)
Mr. Kim and Mrs. Park met for the first time only two months ago, at the funeral of a high-ranking North Korean defector. Mr. Kim had never sent her an apology for trying to kill her father, nor did he think to apologize at the funeral, he said, “because she was so immediately glad to see me.”
“She took my hand and was so warm to me,” he said. “I think she sees me as part of the team. She likes me.”
In the wake of the North Korean artillery attack last month on Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea, which killed two marines and two civilians, Mr. Kim has openly called for a new military readiness in South Korea, along with a harder line and a deeper suspicion toward his former homeland.
“A whole village was bombed to the point of no return, and aside from a few who want to retaliate, the rest of the country is not ready, discipline-wise,” he said. “South Korea is above North Korea in everything except discipline. If there’s a war, and it comes down to psychology, they would still win.”
He favors a total cutoff of aid to the North, including humanitarian food deliveries by the United Nations, as well as long stints of obligatory military service for young South Koreans. A decade of conciliation toward the North, he said, has made the South too complacent.
“People here are numb to the seriousness, especially people under 50,” Mr. Kim said, getting visibly agitated, and not just from a large mug of late-afternoon coffee with two sugars. “We need to be like the Israelis, where the whole population is on the same page.”
There has been deep public outrage here because civilians were killed on Yeonpyeong, and it was widely suggested that these were the first civilian casualties in the decades of North-South clashes. Many people, either forgetting their own history or being unaware of it, insisted that the North had “upped the ante” by attacking civilians for the first time.
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