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Thursday, December 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

South Korean hit squad on view as film recounts botched plot

By Sang-Hun Choe
The Associated Press

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SEOUL, South Korea — They were bootblacks, hobos, acrobats — 31 ex-cons and ruffians plucked out of prison or off the streets and offered one last chance for redemption: to sneak into North Korea and kill its president, Kim Il Sung.

But nothing went according to plan. Their mission aborted, they ended up killing their trainers, fighting their way into the South Korean capital and blowing themselves up. It was a severe embarrassment to South Korea's dictatorship, and until military rule ended in the 1990s, few talked about it.

A new movie based on the July 23, 1971, uprising is spurring renewed soul-searching over this touchy chapter. "I cried all the way through the movie," said Kim Bang-il, a former air force sergeant who trained the men and previewed the film.

"Silmido," which opened yesterday, remains true in its main elements to real events, critics say, and comes amid fresh scrutiny of the excesses carried out by South Korea's military regimes in the name of fighting communism.

It is part of a new genre taking on once-taboo subjects such as domestic political intrigue. The films appeal to a public that increasingly views the North as a misguided cousin rather than an archenemy. But decades ago, the mood was different. The "Silmido" unit was forged in April 1968 to exact revenge from North Korea.

Three months earlier, on Jan. 21, 1968, 31 North Korean commandos had achieved the unimaginable: trudging undetected for about 40 miles from the border to the forested hill behind the palace of South Korean President Park Chung-hee in Seoul.

Only at the last minute did South Korean security forces repel the assault. The sole survivor, Kim Sin Jo, said he came to "slit the throat of Park Chung-hee." He decided to hit back in kind. The 31 misfits were assembled on Silmido, an islet 40 miles west of Seoul, and offered a chance to erase their pasts and start anew — if they survived.

In October 1968, after brutal training during which three men died, the squad set out for North Korea in rubber boats but was ordered back. Park's government had decided not to disrupt the budding U.S.-Soviet détente. The island commanders recommended the men be reassigned or disbanded. But higher-ups in Seoul offered no word on their fate. So they were returned to the island, and training resumed. It continued for nearly three years, until they rebelled on Aug. 23, 1971, killed 18 of their 24 trainers, commandeered a boat and set out for the capital. They seized buses and blasted their way through police blockades, killing a police officer and a child along the way.

Once in Seoul, they encountered a roadblock of soldiers. After a gunbattle, the outnumbered rebels blew themselves up with grenades. Four survivors were later executed.


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