* This is part two of a two-part series: part one can be found here.
* As Ha (alias) is still serving in the ROK military, he agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
As of September 28, 12 days since the counter-DPRK operation began, 11 North Korean agents had been found dead, 11 had been killed by the ROK forces, and one had been arrested, which left only three more.
But it was these three that would be the most troublesome, veterans say.
“I could hear them coming,” Ha, who at the time was Republic of Korea Army Special Forces (ROKA-SF) Master Sergeant (MSG) says.
“One of my teammates also said that he could hear ‘the North Korean Gongbi (communist guerrillas) passing right there.’”
Ha asked again if his teammate was sure of it, and when he said he was positive, Ha sprinted to where the Gongbi could be.
“Before I was dispatched to Gangneung, I told my son that his father would be a hero before this operation was over. Because his papa was eager to catch at least one Gongbi,” Ha says, tracing back to the days when he was a much younger man.
“I sprinted out of my hole, into the darkness, as I worried that the Gongbi might run away. Soon, I found out that it wasn’t the sound the Gongbi made, but just a wild animal, possibly a boar,” Ha spoke in laughter.
While he might have been laughing during the interview, it wasn’t a laughing matter back then, as the given order to all ROK units was to “shoot every moving thing on sight.”
“I soon realized that I was too deep in the darkness, out of the designated ambush site, all alone.”
All of his teammates, 11 of them, inside the ambush sites were aiming their loaded rifles in his direction with very itchy trigger fingers, waiting to be pulled at anything that resembled the shape of a man.
Popping his head out, or standing up without any warning in front of the battle-hungry ROKA-SF units would almost certainly have led to his body being riddled with holes, Ha thought.
“Hey, guys … It’s me, your MSG, don’t shoot! I am coming out! I repeat, DON’T SHOOT!”
While Ha, fortunately, didn’t get killed by his men by mistake, this wasn’t the case for some other ROK forces.
During the 49-day operation, many were injured by friendly fire. One ROK Army officer died due to friendly fire on October 10 during his ambush mission.
Kim Sun-gon, the former ROKA-SF Sergeant Major (SGM), says the constant state of “not knowing when and where the enemies might stand up from the darkness” naturally led to a higher chance of facing a friendly fire situation.
“You get to see and hear things … like you are hallucinating,” Kim said.
The sound of a leaf falling would sound like a Gongbi’s foot stepping on the fallen leaves
“During the pitch darkness, under the immense stress and the worry of possible North Korean agents passing you by; you would be amazed by how manipulative your ears can be.”
And Kim could only rely on his ears, as there was “absolutely no light source” during the night, as it was during a new moon – when the Moon is under Earth’s shadow.
“We were equipped with night vision goggles, but back then, they were not advanced enough to work properly without moonlight. Even with the goggles, I could barely see a meter in front of me,” Kim says.
“The sound of a leaf falling would sound like a Gongbi’s foot stepping on the fallen leaves, a move of a branch under pitch darkness would look like a Gongbi waving his hands.”
It was only sheer luck that his unit did not suffer from or inflict friendly fire, as anyone under those conditions could be the unfortunate victims of allied forces, he recalls.
TWO KILLERS ON THE LOOSE
As of the beginning of October, about two weeks since the beginning of the counter-infiltration operation, 11 Gongbi were found dead, 11 were killed by the ROK forces, and one was arrested alive, leaving only three more Gongbi on the loose.
During the whole phase of the operation, the ROK military forces lost 12 people, including the one officer who died in a friendly fire situation. But it wasn’t just the military officials whose life was taken by the DPRK invasion.
On September 21, a civilian who was picking gill fungus – one of the major sources of income for Gangneung citizens – was mistakenly shot and killed by the ROK military.
And then on October 8, the ROK suffered the most severe and brutal murder of its citizens by two DPRK soldiers.
On that day, one man was shot in the back of his head as he was running away from the North Korean commandos, the second man was killed by a bullet that pierced his heart, and an elderly woman was bludgeoned and strangled to death. All were killed to prevent them from calling the ROK authorities.
Eight days after murdering three South Korean civilians near Tapdong-ri, Jinbu-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, the duo was spotted by a civilian near Namjeon-ri, Nam-myeon, Inje-gun, a location only 30 kilometers from the DMZ: the military border between the North and South.
Either I get shot and injured or killed…I just wanted to have a face to face moment with [the Gongbi]
According to reports from that year, a school teacher who saw the duo quickly hide under a cliff while she was driving her car reported them to the police. But the ROK authorities at that time did not take her statement seriously and missed the chance to capture the duo earlier.
Around the time when the Gongbi were on the loose, ROKA-SF SGM Park Jae-eun was hiding in one of many mountains, hoping to confront the North Korean soldiers.
“I did not care,” Park says.
“Either I get shot and injured or killed during the close combat with these Gongbi, I, along with other ROKA-SF, just wanted to have a face to face moment with them.”
The reason why Park said “close combat” – instead of shooting them from a distance – was because of the “out-of-the-mind-order” he had to follow at that time.
“So, as we already said, a civilian was killed by friendly fire, so we worried that if it happened again, command would give an order to take away our bullets,” Park says.
“They took them all! They even told us to use our combat knives and jump on the Gongbi – who were all armed – when we see one. What a bunch of corrupted-crazy-bastards.”
Even with just a combat knife, he was ready to confront any Gongbi if he had to, but it was the other “bull s**t” that he could not cope with.
“Each of the commanders wanted their units to kill the Gongbi,” Park says.
“We, as the special forces, know exactly how they would retreat, what kind of route they would take, how they would engage: because we are trained to do the same job just like them.”
But the ROK Army Corps commander, he says, had dispatched the ROKA-SF to where the Gongbi were least likely to be, while sending his “cowardly” infantry to the danger zone, who would “run off” even at the slightest signs of danger.
“No wonder those North Korean agents were able to move so far in such a short time.”
The other biggest challenge stemmed from the heated media environment at that time.
“Just about every reporter came to cover the case and sensitive information, such as the location of the ROK units, was leaked to the media,” Park continues.
“We later learned that the DPRK used that public information and directed those spies to counter our counter-operation, which eventually led to the escape of one Gongbi back to the North.”
THE FINAL BATTLE
“I beg for forgiveness from the comrade Kim Jong Il,” one of the two Gongbi wrote, while en route to break through the ROK siege, the ROK government source told media after recovering their death notes.
“For the comrade Kim Jong Il, I feel eternally sinful for failing to accomplish the mission,” the notes said, according to the source, adding that the Gongbi’s “vow to fidelity” continued even at their last moment.
According to other memos found in the North Koreans’ notebooks, throughout their escape to the DPRK, they received Pyongyang’s instructions using a short-wave radio, which would tell them how to avoid making contact with the stationed ROK units whose positions had been leaked to the media.
But their notes also said they were “distressed” after having burnt the decryption table, which allowed them to decode the North Korean spy signals, something they could not risk leaking to the ROK forces if their bodies were found.
It was from this journal that the ROK learned that the duo was responsible for the killing of the ROKA-SF SFC Lee Byung-hee on September 21, and the brutal murder of three civilians and one ROK Army soldier who was previously thought to be missing.
One of many kinds of ROK leaflet that were scattered across the region. “You are completely surrounded,” it says urging Gongbi to turn themselves in I Credit: Youtube, originally by the ROK government
Had the ROKA-SF not spotted and killed them on November 5, the duo could have escaped to North Korea, as their last stand was made just 10 kilometers away from the DMZ.
Veterans also said the pair’s final confrontation was brutal, and resulted in the death of three ROK soldiers, with seven more injured.
According to the ROK JCS’s record at that time, the sporadic engagements between them and the ROK forces broke out at 04:28, 07:20 and 08:55 on November 5.
But the final battle that put an end to the 49-day counter-infiltration operation happened at 10:30 of the same day when the North Koreans fought the ROKA-SF 3rd Airborne Brigade.
By the time of their last stand, all three veterans interviewed by NK News had returned to their original posts, and could not take part in the finale to the second longest counter-Gongbi operation in South Korean history.
However, even after over 20 years, all three clearly remembered the details of how it happened, and the name of the hero, Jang Sun-yong, who was MSG at that time.
“After 30 minutes of the search operation, in the pine tree forest that was in front of me, I spotted the movement of something that resembled a human,” MSG Jang told Yonhap News Agency, about a year after the Gongbi’s invasion.
Shortly after observing their movement in absolute silence, MSG Jang aimed and fired at the human-like figures, and later shouted “surrender now” three to four times.
There was no response, Jang said, but shortly after, all of the teammates’ muzzles flared at once when the Gongbi’s movement was seen again, killing them instantly.
The whereabouts of last Gongbi, believed to be Ri Chol Jin, the submarine’s pilot, remains a mystery as his body was never found during the operation. But it is widely believed, even by the veterans, that he has escaped to the North safely.
North Korea’s will to infiltrate South Korea never ceased. North Korea’s last year training targeting the S.Korean Presidential office I Credit: KCNA
WHAT THE ROK LEARNED
This 1996 invasion was just one case out of dozens of the – publicly known – DPRK infiltrations of ROK territory, which continued even after the end of the Korean War.
Most notably, from October 30 to November 2 of 1968, the DPRK sent 120 of its Gongbi to South Korea’s Ulsan-Samcheok region. It took nearly two months for the ROK to kill 113 of the invaders and capture seven of them alive – setting the unbroken record of being the longest counter-Gongbi operation in South Korean history.
No matter how hard [DPRK forces] train, without the proper means to kill their enemies, their numbers do not mean much
January that year was also when the famous Blue House raid took place, an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the South Korean President, Park Chung-hee.
While many lives were lost, veterans say the counter-infiltration operation of 1996 in Gangneung region has taught the ROK forces valuable combat lessons, that would be put to good use during any future DPRK invasions.
Not only have the ROK’s counter-infiltration capabilities improved since 1996, veterans say, but its invasion and preemptive attack capabilities on the North Korean leadership have improved considerably as well.
“With upgraded training and equipment, I am more than confident that the ROKA-SF can do it even multiple times,” Park Jae-eun says, referring to the ROK’s “beheading” operation that the North reacted furiously to.
“North Korean special forces serve for seven to ten years, while our ROKA-SF’s shortest term would be a bit over four years. Does that mean their force is better than ours?,” Kim Sun-yong asks.
“No, with the country’s economy in its current state, it will just be seven to ten years of inadequate training with poor supplies. No matter how hard they train, without the proper means to kill their enemies, their numbers do not mean much.”
Featured Image: MBC, Youtube
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