- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

SEOUL — very morning, Park Bu-seo, 73, enters his office in Seoul. The gray metal desks, coffee table, national flag and wall photos are standard, but above a filing cabinet is something unusual: A bundle of dried fish — a Buddhist charm to keep evil spirits at bay — dangles above a single white candle.

Mr. Park, a wiry man, lights the candle at the shrine. His daily gesture memorializes 7,726 comrades the South Korean government now admits never returned from a shadow war between North Korea and South Korea.

“We were picked as special operatives and were sent North on missions, but are not recognized as part of the Republic of Korea Army,” said Mr. Park. As president of the Association of Meritorious Undercover Operatives in North Korea, he has been campaigning since 1987, when South Korea elected its first civilian president and enacted other democratic reforms.

“We want financial compensation,” he said. “If a civilian reports a North Korean spy here, he is given a 100 million won [$98,000] reward. We risked our lives, but the maximum we can get is 90 million won.”

Seoul’s secret soldiers

Mr. Park belonged to the ROK Army’s Headquarters Intelligence Detachment (HID), a clandestine unit created for intelligence gathering and sabotage during the 1950s and 1960s. HID may have suffered the heaviest casualties of any free world special forces unit. The Ministry of National Defense admits 7,726: Park and his comrades insist the real number is above 10,000.

The HID was created for partisan operations in North Korea. Its date of creation is unclear, given a lack of official records about this unit. Some say it was founded in the years leading up to the Korean War; others insist it was only activated once fighting began. Its number of personnel is also unknown. Some reports put the force as high as 20,000.

Just as the embryonic U.S. Special Forces recruited Eastern European exiles in the 1950s, many original HID operatives were young North Koreans barely in their teens who had fled to South Korea. They had Northern accents, knew the lay of the land and had family who could assist them on enemy territory.

HID operatives were deployed for the riskiest missions of the Korean War. Singly or in groups, uniformed or disguised as civilians, its members infiltrated North Korea overland, by parachute, by boat or by submarine. HID missions included intelligence gathering, sabotage, assassination and prisoner snatches. Female operatives joined some missions.

Memoirs published

The unit came into renewed focus at the end of last year when perhaps its most successful operative, Kim Dong-suk, 82, published his autobiography “This Man.” (The title comes from a comment attributed to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who, on hearing of Mr. Kim’s latest exploit, asked admiringly, “This man again?”).

Mr. Kim gained such a reputation that the South Korea-based U.S. 2nd Infantry Division named a building for him.

HID has only emerged from the shadows in recent years. The first public mention of the unit appeared in a Korean magazine in 1994. The South Korean government officially admitted the unit’s existence in July 2005.

With increased political freedoms in South Korea, veterans of HID and its successor unit, the Army Intelligence Unit (AIU), have begun demonstrating. Besides compensation, they seek recognition of their activities and military ID numbers, which would entitle them to veterans’ benefits.

Riot police repulsed

In 2002, former HID and AIU members protesting in downtown Seoul were set upon by Seoul riot police. Grabbing butane-gas canisters from nearby street stalls, the veterans put together improvised flamethrowers, forcing the riot squads into panicky retreat.

Last year, groups of former HID and AIU men in black fatigues demonstrated outside the Japanese Embassy during protests over the Dokdo-Takeshima island dispute. Some shot flaming arrows into the Japanese ambassador’s residence.

Into the North

Such activities are not for Mr. Park and older HID veterans who took on the most dangerous missions during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Ahn Seong-il participated one of the HID’s most successful operations.

“On 6 April, 1951, I and 200 HIDs were sent into Kaesong on a night mission led by Kim Dong-suk,” the stocky 76-year-old recalled. That city in southern North Korea, northwest of Panmunjom in the DMZ, was Korea’s capital 1,000 years ago, before the Yi dynasty moved the capital to Seoul in 1392. During the Korean War, Kaesong served as a point of contact between North and South, and some South Korean firms now make exports there.

“There were many Chinese and North Korean soldiers resting there. We went in and captured 40 Chinese, 20 North Koreans, weapons and rice — even Kaesong ginseng. Some of the HIDs were from the area, so they knew the town well.”

ROK boat disabled

Not all missions were so successful. Mr. Ahn survived one of the most disastrous.

“One hundred twenty of us were sent North in a civilian boat,” he said.

“Our mission was to enter the mountains, set up a staging post, and capture Chinese. At that stage, Chinese soldiers had entered the war, but none had been captured. The North Korean navy spotted us and opened fire, hitting the boat. It was adrift, so 30 of us abandoned it and headed for the mountains.

“I was captured, though as I was young, the North Koreans did not treat me too badly. I escaped from the prison camp, and my mother, who lives near Pyongyang, took care of me and helped me escape South.

Attack on Blue House

“Of the men who went into the mountains, only 15 returned. All those who stayed on the boat were lost. I never saw my mother again.”

Secret HID activities did not stop with the 1953 cease-fire. Through the 1950s and ‘60s, an undeclared war flared along the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea as communist guerrillas infiltrated.

The most dramatic episode took place in 1968, when a platoon of North Korean commandoes infiltrated, regrouped in Seoul, and stormed the presidential Blue House in an attempt on President Park Chung-hee. In a fierce, close-quarters gunbattle they were wiped out.

Sole survivor now pastor

The only survivor, Kim Shin-jo was captured and defected. He is currently a Presbyterian pastor in Seoul.

Much more common were small-scale infiltrations in the mountainous border regions and coastal areas. Peter Bartholomew, an American Peace Corps volunteer on Korea’s East Coast in 1968-69, and a businessman with Seoul-based IRC Ltd today, recalls how he often fell asleep to the sound of firefights in the mountains.

When commanders wanted to retaliate for Northern attacks, they called in the hard men of HID.

“On 17 October 1967, I and 10 men were dispatched into the DMZ wearing North Korean uniforms obtained from abroad,” recalls HID veteran Park Young-su. The general commanding his sector had ordered a grisly reprisal for Northern raids.

“We killed three North Korean soldiers, and returned home with their ears,” Mr. Park said. “I was given a medal, but the medal was ‘officially’ for other reasons: Because of the armistice, our operations were deniable.” The penalty for capture was chilling. The crew of the captured American spyshipUSS Pueblo, incarcerated in North Korea in 1968, recalled the screams of men they were told were captured ROK operatives undergoing appalling torture.

Mission said altered

HID veterans say that after the war, large, direct-action operations ceased and most missions were confined to intelligence gathering. Mr. Park says most operatives from HID and its successor units of the 1970s and later underwent brutal training but were not sent North.

This may not be the case. A public relations executive who served in South Korea’s “Black Beret” special forces in the early 1980s recalls being briefed on models of sabotage targets in the North by unnamed men who had personally reconnoitered the sites.

Other former operatives have told news media they were sent into the demilitarized zone on missions during the 1980s. Citing national security, a spokesperson at the Ministry of National Defense declined to say whether an HID-type unit still exists in ROK military.

Survivors remorseful

Surviving HID veterans suffer from both physical and psychological trauma. “Most people in life want to do good deeds, but our job was killing,” said Mr. Park. “Now we feel remorse. This affects your life.”

Of the thousand or so HID men still alive who Mr. Park says were sent into North Korea in the 1950s and ‘60s, an increasing number are willing to talk.

“I think the rest of the world needs to know about us, but the South Korean government does not want to recognize us. They are in talks with Pyongyang, and do not want to upset the North,” said Mr. Ahn, who has shrapnel wounds in one shoulder and hearing difficulties.

“We used to believe that we should keep our missions secret, but now we want to speak up. We have been treated unjustly.”

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