The history of failed attempts on the lives of Pyongyang’s leaders shows if you come for the Kims, you better not miss.
Adam Rawnsley writes: The two dozen commandos trained to kill North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung on a remote island off the coast of South Korea never made it to Pyongyang. The men of the 2325th Group’s 209th Detachment had been recruited from the country’s poor, desperate, and criminal and brought to Silmido Island to be trained to become assassins. To South Korea’s own authoritarian leaders in 1968, this meant they had to be hardened. They were abused, neglected, and put through grueling exercises with guards shooting at their feet and beating them with bats when they didn’t perform to expectations. Six of them were executed for disobedience; another drowned by accident.
Their mission was to infiltrate North Korea, sneak into one of Kim’s palaces, and murder the Great Leader, paying North Korea back in kind for a failed 1968 special operations raid aimed at assassinating South Korean President Park Chung-hee. By 1971, Park had given up on the prospect of revenge. The men of Silmido Island, however, had not. That year, they rose up, killing 18 of their guards with their honed commando skills and stealing a boat across the Yellow Sea to the port of Incheon. There they hijacked two buses and set out to Seoul to kill the men who had ordered them to be turned into weapons.
Like many attempts to kill members of the Kim dynasty both before and after, this one ended in ruin, blazing out in a hail of gunfire and grenade explosions as the remaining recruits fought a doomed battle with police in the South Korean capital.
But even if they had been launched against the North, their fate would have been the same. Even their handlers believed their chances of survival were slim — a fact they kept hidden from the commandos. The North had long proved inhospitable ground for infiltrators. South Korean intelligence had “made no serious effort” to carry out intelligence operations in the North in the late 1960s “because the expected losses of intelligence agents would be high and the benefits nil or virtually nil,” according to a declassified CIA report.
Nearly a half-century later, the Kim dynasty is still in power in North Korea, and talk of decapitation is in the air once again. The pace of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development has taken it from a national security sideshow to what Secretary of Defense James Mattis now calls the greatest threat to the United States. The options for halting the increasing reach of the North’s nuclear missiles — a catastrophic war or a politically unpalatable nonproliferation agreement that the North might cheat on — aren’t enviable, but the U.S. Defense Department has tried to develop military options, carrying out joint exercises with South Korea in 2016 for a new plan that would involve strikes on North Korean leadership.
South Korea, for its part, has put its authoritarian past and personal revenge plots behind it. But fearful of the North’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal and irritated by its constant display, Seoul has begun to counter Pyongyang’s aggressive messages with threats of its own to kill current leader Kim Jong Un at the outset of any war.
But long before Pyongyang began lighting off ballistic missiles and churning out nuclear warheads, the Kim dynasty has been facing down assassination threats, both real and imagined. From the days of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s through the turbulent end of communist regimes in the 1990s, many have tried (and failed) to kill a Kim. But despite facing lethal challenges from within and without, the dynasty has always managed to dodge would-be assassins thanks to canny survival skills, some less than fully baked plots, and an elaborate network of bodyguards, secret police, and informants.
All the Kims’ men
The Kim family’s first brush with death came in the 1930s, when Kim Il Sung joined the Chinese 1st Route Army as an insurgent in the resistance against Japanese colonial rule in Manchuria and Korea. Once Kim had made a name for himself in the resistance against Japanese occupation, Japanese police set up a designated “special activities unit” to hunt him down, employing dozens of former guerrillas whom the Japanese lured from Kim’s unit by promising amnesty. Together with a network of police informants, the men stalked their former comrade and leader — a lesson in betrayal that Kim would remember for the rest of his life.
Kim was protected during his guerrilla days by a band of bodyguards, which reportedly included his first wife, Kim Jong Suk, the mother of Kim Jong Il. North Korean histories of the period recount a battle in which Kim Jong Suk saved the future North Korean leader’s life in northeastern China, shielding Kim Il Sung from enemy soldiers taking aim at him from a nearby field of reeds and dropping the would-be assassins with her Mauser rifle. The tale has long been a propaganda parable about the need for absolute devotion to the Kims’ security, though there’s little independent evidence to back it up.
The first confirmed attempt on Kim Il Sung’s life in the postwar era — though not the last — came during a ceremony at the Pyongyang railway station commemorating the Korean independence movement on March 1, 1946. Assassins reportedly sent by the South Korean government threw a homemade grenade at the podium as Kim spoke, and Yakov Novichenko, a Soviet Army lieutenant guarding the assembled dignitaries, sprang into action and grabbed the grenade, which exploded in his hand, blowing off his arm. The incident spawned a lifelong friendship between Kim and Novichenko, as well as a cheesy Soviet-North Korean biopic in the mid-1980s. (Leonid Vasin, an assistant section chief in the Soviet Army’s special propaganda section who worked closely with Pyongyang later, would in time write a more skeptical account of the incident. Vasin claimed that the homemade grenade landed about 100 feet from Kim and to the right of the podium, posing little threat.)
The coterie of guards surrounding Kim in the mid-1940s would eventually evolve into one of the world’s most repressive and pervasive police states, run for the personal benefit of the Kim family. Within that architecture of repression grew an elaborate praetorian guard for the North’s supreme leaders, protecting them with multiple, overlapping rings of security.
via Foreign Policy