South Korea is known for its pop culture – particularly its music, TV series, and movies. However, its history is not as glamorous and bright as its current reputation would have you believe.
If you’ve watched the film Silmido, you may be familiar with the existence of the 209th Detachment, 2325th Group. Commonly referred to as Unit 684, this black operation was formed to assassinate the North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung.
The unit became popular in 2003 when Silmido was released. Previously, the government of South Korea made all information pertaining to Unit 684 classified. It was only in 2006 that they released an official report about it.
So, what is the history of South Korea’s Unit 684? Let’s explore the bleak details surrounding the unit from its origins to its disastrous end.
What Was South Korea’s Unit 684?
There is a common misconception that the unit consisted of hardened criminals on death row. This image was perpetrated by the dramatization in the movie Silmido.
However, the 31 recruits mainly included individuals arrested for petty crimes and unemployed civilian youths. They were promised sums of money or jobs in exchange for their services.
The Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) founded the unit on April 1, 1968. It was nicknamed Unit 684 because of this date.
The unit’s members were transported to Silmido, an island in the Yellow Sea off the coast of Incheon. For three years, they endured harsh training and brutal punishments for minor misdemeanors. This led to the death of seven members.
What Was the Blue House Raid? How Did It Prompt the Formation of Unit 684?
The Blue House raid (1968) was also known as the January 21 Incident. It was an attempt made by North Korean commandos, called Unit 124, to assassinate Park Chung-hee, the South Korean President.
The raid was carried out at the South Korean President’s residence. Thirty-one soldiers from the Korean People’s Army were involved and only 2 survived. Others were killed or died by suicide.
Despite two years of rigorous training, the assassination plot failed and President Park was unharmed. However, the attempt resulted in numerous casualties. 26 South Koreans were killed and 66 were wounded. Around 24 of the group were civilians.
After the assassination attempt, the United Nations Command (UNC) requested the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) to hold a meeting to discuss the raid.
Upon North Korea’s request, the meeting was delayed by a day and was held on the 23rd of January. However, most of the discussions were directed towards the seizure of USS Pueblo, a US Navy research ship, and the Raid was hardly discussed.
The Blue House Raid thus set the wheels in motion for the formation of Unit 684.
Why Did Kim Il-sung Target Park Chung-hee in the Blue House Raid?
Park Chung-hee came to power during a coup d’etat in 1961. He ruled as a dictator until he was officially elected and inaugurated as South Korea’s President in 1963.
Park was an authoritarian dictator known for prioritizing economic growth and social order. Even if it led to human rights violations and the curtailment of civil liberties.
He was a highly controversial figure. He was known for being an oppressive ruler with a violent and repressive regime. However, his economic policies and reforms caused rampant industrialization and economic growth, enabling the South Korean economy to thrive.
Despite the labor rights violations and income inequality prevalent under his rule, the period is known as the Miracle on Han River. Some of the chaebols — family companies that were established with the support of the state — remain influential even today. These include Samsung, LG, and Hyundai.
Though Park’s popularity grew during the 1960s, it hit a plateau when the 1970s began. This was mostly because of his authoritarian style of leadership.
In 1967, the North Korean leadership believed that Park’s domestic opposition was no longer a serious threat. They believed that his capitalist, authoritarian rule could continue uncontested.
The American military was preoccupied with the escalation of the Vietnam War. They were unable to easily retaliate or defend South Korea. Therefore, Kim Il-sung decided that it was the perfect time to take action.
He wanted to encourage and aid the opposition in the South. He wanted to facilitate a communist regime by assassinating Park. The Blue House Raid was thus planned and executed.
Il-sung’s goal was to revolutionize and democratize South Korea. But this goal was based on a misconstrued notion of South Korea’s political dynamics and excessive confidence in North Korea’s political appeal.
He was also unable to obtain backing from China and the USSR, even with their shared communist values. All of these factors combined with sheer bad luck resulted in the failure of the Blue House Raid and an unsuccessful war on the South.
When he failed, Unit 684 was founded.
What Were The Economic Ideologies of Kim Il-sung and Park Chung-hee?
Kim Il-sung and Park Chung-hee had similar leadership styles. They both rose to power through military coups. The two leaders embraced state-led economic development. And they both had a significant impact on the Korean peninsula in the 20th century.
Kim Il-sung wanted to make North Korea self-sufficient with the Juche ideology. This was regarded as a branch of Marxism-Leninism.
He was known for his strict, authoritarian control over all aspects of society. This was reflected in his hostile approach toward the outside world. This ultimately led to North Korea’s isolation from the world which is still prevalent today.
On the other hand, Park Chung-hee was initially seen as a reformer who wanted to modernize South Korea. He wanted to introduce greater political freedoms. He also endeavored to cultivate close ties with the Western powers, particularly the United States, in a bid to secure financial and military aid for South Korea.
Like Kim Il-sung, Park maintained a strict regime with an authoritarian leadership that suppressed opposition.
In many ways, Kim Il-sung and Park Chung-hee are extremely similar in terms of their leadership styles and military dictatorships. Their fundamental difference lies in their economic policies and ideologies. Where Il-sung promoted self-reliance from a Communist perspective, Park encouraged private, capitalist growth.
How Did Things Play Out for Unit 684?
Relations between North and South Korea were unstable with alternating periods of peace and hostility. For the members of Unit 684, this instability resulted in disaster.
After years of grueling training and plans to retaliate against Il-sung for the Blue House Raid, the members of Unit 684 were prepared. However, the mission was canceled in August 1971 as relations between North and South Korea improved.
This led the recruits of Unit 684 to despair. They had already faced executions, fatalities, isolation, fatigue, and broken promises at the hands of their recruiters. They were also kept on Silmido Island without their trainee salaries. They were fed poor-quality food, according to the Truth Commission.
The would-be assassins thus turned on their commanders. They orchestrated a mutiny, killing everyone but six guards. After their rebellion, the recruits traveled to the mainland and hijacked a bus to Seoul. The bus ultimately exploded, killing 20 of the mutineers.
Four surviving members of Unit 684 were then tried and executed in secret. The government wanted to conceal their involvement and keep the mission a secret. The bodies of the executed Unit 684 members were not handed over to their families, which exacerbated their anguish.
Documents were also burned to cover up the deadly failure.
What Happened After Unit 684’s Dire End?
The details surrounding Unit 684 were closely guarded and kept secret for years. It was only in 2006 that the Republic of Korea released an official report on Unit 684.
After the document’s release, families of the 21 members of Unit 684 filed a suit against the Korean Government in 2009. They demanded 670 million South Korean won ($606,318.38 USD) as compensation. But the Seoul Central District Court only ordered the government to pay 273 million South Korean Won ($247,052.11 USD) in 2010.
The Court found that “the Silmido agents were not informed of the level of danger involved with their training and the harshness of the training violated their basic human rights.”
A former Unit 684 trainer who was injured in the mutiny, Yang Dong-soo, refused to condemn the members for the bloodshed. “They (Unit 684’s members) should not be branded as mutineers. They were victims. They were young men who were sacrificed. Trainers like me, we were also victims,” he said.
This further established the brutality of Unit 684 for its members and trainers.
As is the case with all political violence, the Blue House Raid and its subsequent retaliation in the form of Unit 684 had disastrous consequences for the fighters involved.
As pawns in the political agendas of two leaders, the members of Unit 684 faced inhuman treatment during their training. Their subsequent deaths were brutal and senseless.