The Korea Herald


Survivors recall tragic Silmido uprising


Published : April 6, 2010 - 12:44

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In the summer of 1971, Yang Dong-su lay on an operating table in a military hospital, bleeding from his neck and on the verge of death.
He unconsciously heard an order by an army surgeon that he needed to move to the mortuary because, the surgeon judged, Yang was dead from his gunshot injury.
Yang, now 55, panicked, and using all of his energy said, "I`m still alive!"
His life-and-death injury, during which he lost 10 kilograms in 12 hours due to heavy blood loss, happened during the Silmido uprising; a tragedy in which 24 South Korean would-be espionage agents killed 18 of their cadres in Silmido, an isolated island in the Yellow Sea, and finally themselves in Seoul 34 years ago. Yang is one of six training officers who survived the bloody uprising. Others survived by hiding in bathrooms, in between mattresses or among the rocks.

For more than half of their lives, Yang told The Korea Herald, he and other survivors have been living in the backwash of the Silmido uprising, suffering mentally and physically ever since. Promising the government that they would never tell their stories made them even more miserable.

Novel and movie

But now most South Koreans are aware of the incident after a novel about Silmido was published in 1999 and more so after a movie, "Silmido," in late 2003, revisited a piece of history that the government would rather forget - South Korea`s secret war of espionage against North Korea, and its sometimes brutal treatment of its own citizens before democratization began in 1987.
Marking the 34th anniversary of the uprising, the Silmido survivors, comrades and surviving families held a memorial service at the national cemetery in Seoul yesterday to remember 18 of their comrades who are buried there. Judging it is not a secret any more, they want the government to consider compensating them for their and their dead comrades` sacrifices.
But the hardship keeps putting them into difficult positions.
A Special Mission Committee, which was established earlier this year to compensate former agents who performed special missions for the country, the ones who were involved with or trained, or surviving families, rejected the Silmido cadres` applications twice last month, saying that because the personnel never went over NLL, the northern limit line, their special missions were never accomplished.
But the committee did accept the application from surviving families of Silmido unit`s spy agents who were trained to dispatch to Pyongyang.
"I don`t understand what kind of policy the government is trying to pull here," said Lee Jun-young who served his 10-month military term at Silmido during 1970-1971. "When we trained the agents for the parachute drop, we went with them," said Lee, showing the pictures that were never revealed before in the past. "We risked our lives too."
Lee said that he and his comrades are the "real victims," who experienced life-threatening situations or were killed for their country, and the government is fully responsible for cleaning up the mess.
"When the country turns its back on you like this," Lee questioned, "who wants to work for the country?"
Along with the six survivors from the uprising, one died of liver cancer caused by stress last year. And there are about 10 more former overseers of the spy agents in Silmido who are still alive.
While the government hasn`t unfolded the real truth about Silmido publicly, Kim Yi-tae, who stayed the longest at Silmido as a platoon leader, described his three-year experience there.
"We never treated them (agents) badly," Kim said. "They were not there by force. They applied to join to be trained."
Like in the movie, the Silmido Unit, or Unit 684 was part of an air force squadron. It was created in April 1968 after a North Korean military cadre named Special Unit 124 infiltrated Seoul early that year and came close to assassinating former President Park Chung-hee.
The only man who made it out of the unit alive admitted on television that he came to slit the Park`s throat. He came with 30 other North Korean would-be assassins across the world`s most heavily forfeited border and reached the Chong Wae Dae area before they were stopped.


In a tit-for-tat effort, the South Korean military recruited 31 men mostly off the streets for special training on the isolated island, Silmido. Their mission was to infiltrate the North, go to Pyongyang and assassinate the North`s leader Kim Il-sung.
But Kim said there was another mission that was not revealed.
Kim said that Unit 684`s mission was, at first, only blowing up a hydropower plant on the Bujin River in South Hamgyeong Province, so that it would flood two cities - Hamheung and Wonsan - in that province.
"There was a two-kilometer water pipe in the plant. And I was told that it was easy for us to invade and bomb it," Kim said. "But I don`t know what happened to that plan. I guess it was changed when the chief of the (South Korea`s) intelligence agency was replaced."
The missions were aborted as Park`s regime had decided not to disrupt the new mood of inter-Korean reconciliation and dismissed the operation. But the Silmido unit remained on the island.
Staying longer on the isolated island than what the government promised, the unit was exhausted from waiting for an order to go to Pyongyang. Getting less attention from the government also made them desperate.
After three years and four additional months of hard training, the Silmido uprising broke out. The 24 men in Unit 684 (the other seven had died during training or while trying to escape) revolted in the morning of August 23, 1971, killing the majority of their training officers - 18 out of 24 - and escaping to the mainland.

`We were weaker`

Many scenes in the movie were exaggerated, Kim said, like the one where the government tried to remove all of the agents so they wouldn`t leak information about Silmido. But the truth was that they were frustrated with no prospect of leaving the island and planned to air their grievances to President Park.
"I once was very frustrated, so I asked my boss, `Should I kill them all?` but it was only talk and never was such an order placed from my superiors," Kim said.
Kim left the island two months before the uprising, expressing he did not want to be in charge of the unit any more, and became a special cadre of parachute drop training in a military unit for about six months.
Lee said during the first two years the unit was led by special cadres and training officials, but as time went by, those were discharged from military service, and the government was busy filling in the numbers of cadres.
Lee was a private who barely knew anything when he was forced to join the unit. But the government put a sergeant`s insignia on his clothes before sending him to the island in early 1970.
"What did I, a private, know about training others? If those trainees had their discipline in the east side of the island, we had ours in the west side," Lee said. "But they knew that we were weaker than them."
During the uprising, Lee was working at the main office in Seoul after his release from hospitalization for surgery for his right leg injured during training.
"They had to kill us to go to Cheong Wa Dae," Lee said, saying the cadres` relationship with the trainees was not bad nor did they treat them brutally like in the movie.
Yang said that the morning of the uprising most of the training officials were perhaps still drunk from consuming their first alcohol in more than three years the night before.
"For the first time, the night before the uprising, about 10 of us left the island and brought large quantities of alcohol back to the military compound," Yang said. "And we drank with the leader`s permission."
But around 6 a.m., trainees watched for an unguarded moment, went into Kim Soon-ung, the captain`s room, hit his forehead hard with a hammer twice and killed him on the spot, he described.
"They stole 120 ball cartridges from there and started killing the guards," Yang said.
After escaping the island, they hijacked a bus to Seoul and ended a fierce gun battle with government troops by blowing themselves up with grenades. Four were captured and later executed.
"After the explosion, I was the one who put together the pieces of dead bodies. It was smelly and hot weather," Lee said. "One didn`t have a leg, one didn`t have half of his face, one didn`t have an arm, one`s body was divided in half."
Kim said that initially the government labeled these men "armed communist agents."
Earlier this month, a Defense Ministry panel ordered to look into past military abuses has launched its first fact-finding investigation into this Silmido unit which was under the supervision of the air force and intelligence agency.
It is part of efforts to dig up false history, a key agenda of President Roh Moo-hyun. The panel aims to investigate questionable deaths that occurred during Korea`s military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.

By Annie I. Bang