About 200 members of the Underwater Demolition Unit gathered at the National Memorial Board and cherished the memory of their dead on the 37th anniversary of an incident in which six South Korean secret agents were killed in Bupo Port of Haeju Bay in North Korea.
"The incident in the early morning of June 23, 1968 is the most regretful and memorable accident of all," said Lee Hwa-sik, adviser of the unit and a former secret agent who joined in 1972.
"Eight years ago, we decided to hold an annual joint memorial on June 22 as we lament the sprits of the dead."
The incident is remembered by the survivors as a special case in which all six victims are enshrined at the cemetery in Seoul, said UDU president Kim Jeong-sang.
Fifteen South Korean secret agents, a team of three and two teams of six, were sent to the North on a mission to seize a North Korean naval vessel and to kidnap a key officer. But the mission failed because of miscommunication among the South Korean vessels and the commander`s misjudgment, said Chae Cheol-seok, one of the survivors.
"We thought there would be no obstacles in going through Bupo Port as we got information from a North Korean navy officer who defected to the South in 1964," said Chae, now 70.
He recalled that it was about 2 a.m. when the three South Korean vessels approached the bay from the Yellow Sea and met wired obstacles on the water, which made navigating harder. Without warning, the North Korean Navy started an attack that apparently killed six agents. The other nine South Korean agents returned safely to the South.
Chae believes two of the six lost agents are still alive in the North. "I heard about it a long time ago - about 30 years ago, but I`m certain that they`re not all dead," he said.
More than 300 agents were killed in over 200 missions into North Korea from 1948 until 1971 - including missions with allies that included the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. However, only a list of about 150 names has been obtained by UDU because of a fire at the unit in 1961 which burned all the data, Kim said.
The UDU was officially established in 1954. Its parent organization was formed in September 1948 when the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps set up a secret spy unit in Korea. In 1955 the unit was renamed UDU.
Its primary missions were infiltrating into North Korea, kidnapping or assassinating key officials, destroying key structures, resupplying agents, demolishing transportation infrastructures, reconnaissance, wiretapping communications of the North Korean army and attacking military targets in the North.
Chae remembers the UDI helped a U.S. agent infiltrate Kumbok-ri, the lower reaches of the Taedong River, which flows through Pyongyang, on June 15, 1963. He did not the U.S. agent`s mission.
The unit operated until July 1971, a year before a North-South agreement to curtail hostile actions was signed.
"We had to stop training the agents because the two Koreas declared the landmark joint agreement on tension reduction," Chae said.
Many members of UDU have been bitter because they feel they have been exploited by the government and their considerable sacrifices and services for the nation have not been properly acknowledged. They note that people who performed lesser services received medals and compensation.
However, after fighting for recognition and compensation for many years, the unit`s surviving members have received some compensation.
"The government is doing its best," Lee said.
But besides the compensation, "it is urgent to regain impaired reputation," Chae said. "The government needs to push hard to give spots at the national cemetery for those who lost their lives for the nation and also bring those who are still alive in the North back to the South."
By Annie I. Bang