- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

SEOUL — One of only two survivors from a North Korean commando squad wiped out in 1968, Presbyterian minister Kim Shin-jo welcomes today’s inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak as the end of a period of dangerous accommodation with the North.

“There has been something wrong in our society,” said Mr. Kim, 67, of the last 10 years of liberal rule in Seoul. “I believe Lee will defend freedom.”

Once part of a North Korean commando squad tasked with “cutting the throat” of President Park Chung-hee in 1968, Mr. Kim is a fierce critic of the engagement policy pursued by the previous two Seoul administrations.

“North Korea has not been ‘engaged,’ ” he thundered in his office in a Christian retreat among hills overlooking the frozen Han River, north of Seoul.

“Nothing has changed in the regime or the military. South Korean support has only made the regime stronger.”

Mr. Kim grew up in an elite family in North Korea. At 24, he was selected for special forces.

“I realized I was undertaking a revolutionary mission,” he said. “My life was no longer guaranteed.”

Training was intense. Commandos ran up mountains, swam rivers, learned weaponry, navigation, parachuting, amphibious infiltration and camouflage. They hid in graves.

“We slept with the bones: It made you fearless, and nobody would think of looking for you in a grave.”

Martial arts were emphasized: Mr. Kim still has scars from the knife training.

In January 1968, Mr. Kim’s unit was ordered to assassinate Mr. Park. News of his death would signal a massive special operation, aimed at creating chaos. A revolution would follow in the South, Pyongyang hoped.

At 4 a.m. on Jan. 18, 1968, the 31 commandos infiltrated the border. They bypassed military patrols, but were discovered by loggers. Mr. Kim suggested killing them, but his commander let them go free. “At that point, I thought our mission would fail,” Mr. Kim said.

When they reached Seoul, it was crawling with police and troops: The loggers had alerted authorities. The commandos were dressed in Japanese civilian clothes they had carried and hid their weapons — automatic rifles, pistols, daggers, grenades — under trench coats.

At 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 21, just 200 yards from the presidential mansion objective, they were challenged by a police chief and shot him. At the gates to the mansion, a furious firefight broke out with South Korean troops. When a bus inadvertently drove into the crossfire, the women and children on board were mowed down.

Suddenly, tanks appeared. The commandos scattered. Mr. Kim headed east, but quickly was surrounded and surrendered. “I had the desire to live,” he said.

Of his comrades, 29 died and one escaped north. Thirty-four South Koreans were killed.

After one year of interrogation and a trial, where it was found that Mr. Kim had not fired his weapons, he was released.

He worked in construction and married a Christian who had written to him during his captivity. But he was haunted — especially when he heard that his parents had been executed because of his defection — and attempted suicide.

Eventually, he found religion. In 1995, he became a pastor and today he assists North Korean refugees.

Mr. Kim said he hopes Mr. Lee will take a tougher line with the North than his presidential predecessors. Like many defectors, he believes that Seoul “has been driven, exploited and used by North Korea.”

He remains suspicious of Pyongyang, which lacks high-tech military assets but retains dangerous unconventional warfare capabilities.

“There is risk of war, even today,” Mr. Kim said. “Only when all special force units are disbanded can we say the North has given up its intention to communize the South.”

As for his disastrous mission: “I try not to think about it,” he said. “It still fills me with horror.”

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