It was a mission so dangerous, so secret, that even mentioning it was forbidden. In the late 1960s, tensions between North and South Korea were at their peak, and the South Korean government needed a solution, and fast.
Enter Unit 684, conceived as a top-secret special forces unit, that would go down in history as one of the most daring and controversial military operations of all time. When things went wrong the unit’s existence was covered up and erased from the history books.
This is the story of Unit 684: South Korea’s own Suicide Squad.
What was Unit 684?
Unit 684 (also known as 209th Detachment, 2325th Group) might sound pretty innocuous, just like any other normal military unit. But that was kind of the point. In reality, it was anything but normal. It was something straight out of the pages of a comic book.
Unit 684 was a “black ops” unit tied to the Republic of Korea Air Force. For anyone not well-versed in the world of spy thrillers, black operations missions are secret and not attributable to the country or organization carrying them out. Simply put, if you’re part of a black ops unit and you’re captured mid-mission, officially you don’t exist.
This obviously means black ops units like Unit 684 are used when countries need to get their hands dirty but keep their reputations sparkly clean. Unit 684 was formed in 1968 with one goal in mind.
The Koreans intended to use a group of convicted criminals and unemployed youths (who no one would miss) to take out Kim Il-Sung, the leader of North Korea at the time.
Unit 684 was (un)officially founded on April 1st, 1968, by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). As their acronym implies, they’re the South Korean equivalent of the United States CIA. The unit was originally known as 209th Detachment, 2325th Group but not long after was given the nickname Unit 684, presumably because it’s less of a mouthful.
The unit’s creation was ordered by President Park Chung-hee. Why did Park decide then was the right time to try and take out the North Korean leader? It was good old-fashioned retaliation, or revenge.
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Unit 684 was formed in retaliation to the Blue House Raid. In January of 1968, North Korea had sent its own black ops unit, Unit 124, to take out Park. Unit 124 had been created by the North Korean Special Operations Force for the sole purpose of killing the South Korean president.
Their plan had been to cross the demilitarize zone (DMZ) which separated the two countries and kill Park at Blue House (the president’s official residence) in Seoul. It was hoped by the North Koreans that this would trigger political turmoil.
Fortunately, they were caught by South Korean police only 100 meters (330 feet) away from the Blue House, disguised in Republic of Korea Army Uniforms. Within a week, 29 of the 31 would-be assassins were dead.
Park decided a tit-for-tat approach was best and ordered the creation of Unit 684 soon after. 31 civilians were recruited, all of them either petty criminals or unemployed youths. They were promised money and jobs if they managed to kill the North Korean President.
The 31 men were transported to Silmido, a small island off the coast of Incheon in the Yellow Sea. While there they were put through three years of rigorous training designed to turn them into the ultimate assassins. The training regime was so harsh that 7 members of the unit died during the training.
Unfortunately for Unit 684, all that training was for nothing. In August 1971, their mission was canceled thanks to a thawing in relations between North and South Korea. The news did not go down well.
It soon turned out that transforming a group of petty criminals and disenfranchised youths into killing machines was a bad idea. It was an even worse idea to renege on the deal you had made with them. The 24 surviving members of unit 684 promptly mutinied, slaughtering all but six of the guards on the island.
They then made their way to the Korean mainland and hijacked a bus to Seoul. The army managed to stop the bus in the Daebang-don neighborhood of Dongjak District, Seoul. The army opened fire and in the ensuing exchange, 20 members of the unit were either shot or fell on their own grenades.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there was an almighty cover-up. At the time The New York Times, using information given to them by Defense Minister Chung Rae-hyuk, reported that 23 “special criminals” had killed 12 Air Force guards on Silmido.
They had then disguised themselves as paratroopers before fleeing to the mainland and hijacking a bus. According to this information, police then forced the bus to crash into a tree in southwestern Seoul. The hijackers then killed themselves with grenades before they could be brought to justice.
According to this version of events 34 were killed in the incident, 30 were wounded and several people went missing. The South Korean Defense Minister never went as far as to explain what civilian criminals were doing in military custody or how they’d managed to take out so many well-armed guards.
Four members of Unit 684 survived the battle in Seoul. They were arrested and sentenced to death by a military tribunal. Their execution on March 10, 1972, was the last step in the South Korean government’s cover-up. All information regarding the group was hidden from the public eye until the 1990s.
Unit 684 first became famous in 2003 with the release of the film, Silmido. The South Korean government continued burying its head in the sand until 2006 when it finally released an official report on what had happened.
The family members of 21 of the members of Unit 684 began proceedings to sue the government in 2009, demanding ₩670 million in compensation. The case was closed in 2010 and the families received ₩273 million. The court declared that the members of Unit 684 had been misled and that their training had been a violation of their human rights.
The story of Unit 684 is one of those strange times when history really is stranger than fiction. The idea of the Korean government using a team of highly trained killers to take out a foreign leader sounds like something straight out of a film.
But we shouldn’t forget that the men of Unit 684 were real human beings who were, no matter their misdeeds in civilian life, misled by their government. Tellingly, one of the six surviving guards, Yang Dong-Su, went as far as to defend the unit’s actions, stating, “They revolted because they felt that they were never going to get the chance to go to North Korea and that they would never be allowed to leave the island. They were in despair.”
Thankfully, the truth eventually came to light, and the families of Unit 684 were finally allowed to mourn properly. While it is important for nations to defend their interests, especially when facing tyrants, there are some lines we mustn’t cross.
Top Image: Unit 684 was selected from petty criminals and trained to assassinate the North Korean dictator. Source: ROMAN DZIUBALO / Adobe Stock.