In 1969, North Korea Almost Unleashed World War III (And Now We Know Why)

    Adam Rawnsley

    Security, Asia

    By the beginning of the 1970s, it was clear that Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla campaign had come to a close, having ended in failure.

    The intelligence community hadn’t been paying as much attention to reconnaissance coverage of North Korea before the guerrilla campaign because the country’s hadn’t been “an overly active area” over the past few years. The result was “a growing deficit in current knowledge of the North Korean military posture,” according to the National Foreign Intelligence Board. To remedy that deficit, the United States tasked an A-12 Oxcart, the CIA’s variant of the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, to fly missions over North Korea from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan as part of the Agency’s Black Shield program.

    In the late spring of 1969, a 75-ton North Korean speed boat hurtled through the Yellow Sea off the western coast of South Korea on a secret mission. Its 15-man crew on board was supposed to pick up an agent operating in the South on behalf of Pyongyang’s spy services and take him back north.

    It was an operation similar to many others that North Korean intelligence had carried out over the past two years as it flooded its enemy, the Republic of Korea, with infiltrators.

    The boat’s crew came ashore on at midnight Heuksan Island looking for its agent. Instead, they found South Korean security forces and a firefight waiting for them.

    All 15 were killed in the shootout.

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    The operation’s failure was no accident. South Korean intelligence had laid what the CIA later called “a carefully prepared trap” for the exfiltration team. A month prior, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, or KCIA, had captured the agent the team was supposed to pick up, turned him into a double agent and used him as bait.

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