The Forgotten Spies of South Korea

By Seungmock Oh, Special to The Epoch Times
April 5, 2019 Updated: April 10, 2019

SEOUL, South Korea—It was the fall of 1969. Having planted four Claymore mines on a road about a mile and a quarter north of the inter-Korean border, Kim Sung Kil, from South Korea, was waiting in ambush for North Korean soldiers escorting a two-star general from the Soviet Union.

At about 5 a.m., the sun had risen, and 24 North Korean soldiers were making their way alongside three cars, one of which was transporting the general. Kim pushed a button to detonate the mines.


“Everyone tumbled,” Kim, 69, told The Epoch Times, recalling the mission.

Kim ran back toward the South as the North Korean soldiers opened fire on him.

Kim Sung Kil, former South Korean spy. (Seungmock Oh for The Epoch Times)

It was October, but it was already cold in the mountainous area around the inter-Korean border. After making it safely back to South Korean territory, Kim warmed himself by a fire.

Suddenly, he noticed his shoes were sticky. He looked down and saw blood. He had been shot three or four times, he said, but hadn’t been aware of his wounds and the pain until that moment.

He was carried to a nearby military hospital for treatment; the hospital created no record of his admittance.

In South Korea, there are about 13,000 former spies such as Kim. Yet, even after their discharge from the army, their existence was denied by the government for decades. Despite the severe mental and physical after-effects of their experiences as special agents, the former soldiers that The Epoch Times spoke to said they are still willing to fight for their country.

Brutal Training Regime

Kim had neither a military service number nor any formal status in the army. His unit was disguised as a private business, a sign over the premises displayed the business name “Hyundai Ranch.” Kim addressed the head of his unit as the president of the company, instead of by his military rank; the unit’s second-in-command was known as the executive director. Kim’s status was as an employee, under the false name Kim Won-kook.

In preparation for his missions to the North, Kim went through closed-door training, where he learned persuasion and kidnapping skills, killing techniques, North Korean dialects, how to use soundless weapons, unlock doors, and other skills.

A collage of undated photos showing South Korean spies training for missions to the North. (Seungmock Oh for The Epoch Times)

There was also bravery training, which repeatedly terrified the trainee spies, Kim recalled.

“On rainy nights, [the trainers] awakened trainee spies and ordered them to dig up a skeleton at the cemetery,” Kim said. As the men were digging up the skeleton on a pitch-black night, their metallic tools clashed with stones, creating a sudden flash of light. The startled spies immediately passed out, Kim said.

Baek Nam-Seok, 53, is another former spy who took part in missions to the North, serving from 1984 to 1987. He said many trainees even died during the training; The Epoch Times couldn’t confirm that claim.

On winter nights, the trainee spies often were suddenly commanded to gather in the yard in just their underwear, Baek said. The commanders sprayed water on the freezing men. Then, they were beaten with sycamore tree branches or baseball bats. Such assaults left the surviving spies with long-term injuries, he said.

“My knees, waist, and shoulders are all not intact,” Baek added. “Some spies ran away because the training was too hard,”

Erased Spies

After five years in the army, Kim was discharged in 1972, at the age of 23. Only 14 of his peers survived out of 63. Upon returning to his home in Yeoju, a city in northwest South Korea, he found that it was rumored that he had died, since he’d been banned from contact with people outside of the military.

An undated photo shows South Korean spies training for missions to the North. (Republic of Korea Special Mission’s Exploits Association)

The South Korean government officially denied the existence of spies to the North, which would have violated the inter-Korean armistice, so Kim’s military record indicated that he had fought in the Vietnam War. When discharged, Kim signed a non-disclosure agreement concerning his spying experience. He said the South Korean intelligence agency would have punished him if he had told anyone about his experiences.

Kim recalled that when he decided to be a spy, the conscription officer told him that he would receive a large financial reward. However, Kim only received “an empty bankbook.”

“[The government] didn’t give the promised money,” he said.

Instead, the Defense Security Command (DSC) continually checked up on how Kim and other discharged spies were living.

“Whenever I was employed, the DSC officers weekly visited the employer and asked if I am [doing] OK,” Kim said.

Kim could not retain a job, he said, because the DSC inspections irritated his employers. So, Kim went to work at a china factory run by his mother’s family.

After-Effects of Spying

Many of the former spies committed suicide after being discharged from the army, Kim said.

“They could not adapt to society,” he explained.

An undated photo shows South Korean spies training for missions to the North. (Republic of Korea Special Mission’s Exploits Association)

Kim found having a normal social life was difficult, due to his damaged mental health.

He also found that many of his peers became mentally ill because of the trauma they were exposed to while serving as spies.

“All the spies became insane,” he said. “No one is living properly.”

The most common after-effect was post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kim also feels that symptoms of ailments or injuries that had remained undetected while he was young, began to manifest as he’s grown older. Such ailments are likely due to the physical demands of army life, Kim and Baek both say.

Government Recognition

The former spies took to the streets of Seoul in violent protests in 2002, in response to alleged neglect by the South Korean government.

“We exploded gas cylinders [during the protest],” Kim said.

An undated photo shows South Korean spies training for missions to the North. (Republic of Korea Special Mission’s Exploits Association)

After the protests, the government enacted a compensation law, which provided a payment that the former spies say is significantly smaller than the huge sum originally promised by the conscriptors.

“I am now 72 [69 following the Western solar calendar] and receive just about $800 [per month],” Kim said. “This is nonsense.”

A Ministry of Defense spokesman said the department is aware of the claims by the former spies that the payments they have received are significantly less than what they were promised. However, he said, there is no proof of such claims about compensation.

The former spies say they are still ready to help save the country if they’re needed.

“I don’t regret [the service], because it was for the country,” Kim said.

An undated photo shows South Korean training for missions to the North posing for a group photo. (Republic of Korea Special Mission’s Exploits Association)

Kim supports the denuclearization of the North, but is doubtful about the possibility.

“Even though Trump wants do that, would China and Russia let it happen?” he said.

“South Korea also wants it. It will be great [if the North denuclearizes].” It would bring prosperity to both Koreas, Kim said.