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Digging up graves and hiding with corpses: The death squads willing to die to assassinate the enemies of North Korea

Mirror Mirror 22/08/2016 By Rod McPhee
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If they didn’t lose toes, fingers or feet to frostbite on sub-zero marches, they had to learn to dig up graves and hide themselves among the skeletons of corpses - such was the extreme training of North Korea ’s ultimate assassins.

Created in 1967 to murder South Korean president Park Chung-hee, assassination Unit 124 was devised at a time when the rogue state saw targeted killings as among the few weapons it could wield against its many enemies.

Now after 66 years of war it’s only an ongoing truce with South Korea which keeps the peace and there are fears Kim Jong-un will be reviving the deadly unit as he’s enraged by a recent spate of defections.

The most high-profile came this week when North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain, Thae Yong-Ho, and his family, defected to South Korea .

The official Korean Central News Agency branded him “human scum” and child rapist, but officials in Seoul fear the unpredictable North Korean leader will retaliate with a wave of assassinations.

Any high ranking officials or their relatives who defect are seen as traitors embarrassing the tyrannical regime - and the consequences can be deadly.

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In 1997 Yi Han-yong was shot dead by two assassins believed to be special forces operatives from the North Korean military.

He’d defected to South Korea in 1982 and even had plastic surgery to hide his identity, but after going bankrupt and being jailed for embezzlement, he made the mistake of penning a book about his life as the nephew of a mistress of Kim Jong-il, who’d become supreme leader of North Korea in 1994.

Another assassination plan was uncovered in 2010, this time targeting the highest level defector in North Korea’s history, Hwang Jang-yop, the man behind the rogue state’s isolationist policy.

After he turned his back on the regime Kim Jong-il, father of the current supreme leader, despatched two assassins from an espionage unit posing as defectors - a mission they’d spent FOUR YEARS training for.

They were caught and sentenced to 10 years jail in South Korea.

Before he died of natural causes aged 88 in the year the plot was uncovered, Hwang said: “Death is just death. There is no difference from dying of old age or being killed by Kim Jong-il.”

Paul Fischer, author of book A Kim Jong-il Production says the threat of assassinations and abductions by the North Koreans should be taken extremely seriously.

© Provided by Mirror “There’s no limit to what they’re willing to do and they tell themselves that it’s totally justifiable,” he says.

“The way they see it is that they are the last bastion of the Cold War - a Cold war they still believe they’re fighting. Assassinations and abductions are skirmishes you can have short of all out war.

“They keep the rest of the world on its toes and let the North Korean population know they’re fighting back, while everyone else is falling like dominoes in the face of American imperialists.

“The truth is that, although they still see themselves as a socialist, Cold War state, the Kim family are really just a crime family. The outlaws of the international community.”

The attempted killing of Chung-hee in 1968 by Unit 124 is the bloodiest reminder of the regime’s willingness use assassinations.

Almost 100 people were killed or injured when the 31 commandos tried to raid the president’s official residence, the Blue House in Seoul. Fortunately the attempt on the president’s life failed and 30 of the 31 North Korean commandoes died.

The only surviving member of the unit was Kim Shin-jo, and he provided a shocking insight into the importance North Korea places on assassination - and how they hoped it would lead to the overthrow of South Korea.

Now 75, and a resident of South Korea after officially defecting 48 years ago, he said: “We were taught that America had turned South Korea into a colony and our mission was to remove the puppet government.

“I was undertaking a revolutionary mission. My life was no longer guaranteed. It had to be a short-term war. In the Korean war, North Korea could not win due to lack of money, lack of resources.”

Key to a successful killing was ensuring the assassins were the toughest and devoted they could possibly be. As well as going on freezing marches, they were starved and forced to eat snakes and frogs in the forests of North Korea. One of their hardest challenges, however, was digging up graves to hide in.

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

Their operation was incredibly detailed. Military chiefs ordered a life-size model of the Blue House be built so they could draw up a plan of attack, which was carried out at 4am on January 18, 1968.

They even wore South Korean military uniforms and were trained how to speak in a Seoul accent.

“This is the basis of guerilla fighting,” he said. “We were confident. We knew all about the Blue House defence; we didn’t think much of their bodyguards. They were not very alert.”

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But after they’d been spotted by some villagers as they came into the country, the South Korean military were soon onto them.

“They blocked the roads, but they could not stop us”, Kim, now a Christian pastor, said. “They thought we would move at about eight kilometres an hour, but we moved at 12. They blocked the roads behind us: We had already passed through.”

It was only when police stopped them and started asking them questions that their plan really came unstuck, and a gunfight broke out.

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Tragically, a bus happened to drive into the line of fire and women and children on board were peppered with bullets.

68 South Koreans died, along with three US soldiers. 29 of the commandos, who’d all scattered when the shooting broke out, were hunted down and killed over the next nine days. One made it back to North Korea, but Kim immediately surrendered.

“I put my weapon down,” he said. “I had a desire to live: it’s the basic instinct of humans.”

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After officially defecting he married and started a family in South Korea.

After the failed 1968 assassination, the North Korean regime relied on other forms of targeted killing - but they still had their sights on the South Korean president.

In 1974 a Japanese born North Korean sympathiser, Mun Se-gwang attacked Park Chung-hee at the National theatre in Seoul with a gun.

Though he survived his wife, Yuk Young-soo and a high school student were killed in the process. Mun, 23, was executed four months later.

Then in 1982 it was revealed North Korea had tried to hire two Canadian criminals to assassinate the then-President, Chun Doo-hwan. Though that plot was uncovered, a year later he was targeted again, this time on a state visit to Burma.

Three men, a North Korean major and two captains, set off a bomb at a memorial in Burmese capital Rangoon, killing 21 people - including four senior South Korean politicians. The president only survived because he had been delayed in traffic.

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