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In order to understand North Korean thinking, it must be stated that they have a guerrilla mindset derived from state-sponsored propaganda about the Kim family. Kim Il-sung positioned himself as an anti-Japanese guerrilla who served in a sniper unit, killing the oppressors of the Korean people—a claim that is historically dubious at best. The North Koreans have been brainwashed into believing that their neighbors in the south are the ones who have it really bad, starving and living under authoritarian rule.
It is from this population that North Korean infiltrators are selected and trained. “The principal mission of the North Korean Special Purpose Forces is to infiltrate into the enemy’s rear area and conduct short-duration raids. Their most dangerous avenue of approach for their forces includes amphibious approaches, airborne infiltration, and the use of a vast tunnel network” (Krause, viii). Having penetrated into South Korea’s rear areas, these Special Purpose Forces will then begin a campaign of sabotage, terrorism, and mayhem that will disrupt South Korean units fighting on the front lines. The North has over one hundred thousand soldiers prepared to conduct this mission in a standing army of over one million, with many more reservists who can be called back into service.
Foal Eagle is the name of an annual training exercise that takes place each fall and is intended to train those in South Korea’s rear areas to defend against North Korean infiltrations. U.S. Special Forces and South Korean Special Forces would train by conducting direct action missions against South Korean military bases and installations. This would allow friendly forces to practice their defense drills while the special operations units worked on their direct action capabilities.
Old hands who served in Det K will tell you that the best Foal Eagle exercise took place in October of 1968, when training was interrupted by a 130-man North Korean infiltration down the east coast into Ulchin and Samchok. The joint American/Korean Special Forces members transitioned their exercise into a live combat operation, hunting down and killing the North Koreans up in the mountains. This resulted in 110 enemy dead, seven captured, and 13 unaccounted for. (Det K, 16).
Serving in the Det had its funny moments though, too. Basset used to conduct static-line parachute jumps with the unit’s mascot, a dog affectionately named John Dog Hill, who was on the rolls as a private in the Det. One day, Basset bumped a sergeant major from a jump for John Dog Hill. “I have to take second place to a goddamn dog!” he said jokingly.
During this timeframe, U.S. Special Forces were actively fighting in Vietnam, and most Green Berets saw that country as the place to go since it was where the war was. Some Korean units were also going to Vietnam to help support the fight against communism, and were able to put to the test the training that their U.S. Special Forces mentors had given them. The Koreans had a reputation for being competent under fire—much more so than Vietnamese Special Forces.
In 1967, a Korean infantry battalion was in the process of encircling a Vietnamese village, preparing to shoot their way in with .50 caliber machine guns.
“Won’t a lot of civilians get killed like this?” a Green Beret named “Bucky” Burruss in Mike Force asked the Korean liaison officer.
“We don’t kill civilians, just VC [Viet Cong] suspects,” the liaison replied (Burruss, 51). Burruss ensured that civilians were evacuated from the village before the Koreans opened fire. The Korean forces had developed a reputation for ruthlessness—not just in Vietnam, but in their country as well. In those days it was not uncommon to see a police officer stop a motorist in Seoul for a minor traffic violation, drag him out of the vehicle, and issue him a physical lashing.
In 1968, tensions were rising between North and South Korea. The North Korean government under Kim Il-sung had quickly turned into nothing more than a criminal regime that was undermining and breaking international law, violating every norm in contemporary international politics, and engaging in terrorist operations and mafia-type activity across Asia. South Korean President Park had been singled out by the North as a high-value target that needed to be taken out. The Kim regime took note of American military units departing South Korea, redeployed to Vietnam as the war in Indo-China escalated, and sensed an opportunity to strike.
Featured image: MSG Collins, who was the Set K team sergeant, with SFC Lavoie in a UH1 Huey in Korea in 1969. Courtesy of Rick Lavoie.
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