Ilhan New, a Korean-American Intelligence Agent of the Second World War
The mysterious North Korean resistance group named Free Joseon has drawn international attention since its declaration of revolution on the centennial of the March First Movement of 1919 and its incursion into North Korea’s embassy in Spain, and the arrest of a Korean-American U.S. Marine veteran for leading the raid has baffled American media and the general public. Simultaneously, television audiences in Korea and worldwide have been watching the fictional story of a Korean-American U.S. Marine caught up in Korean resistance against Japan in the 1900s, Mr. Sunshine, since July 2018. Few know that this unusual fiction and even more unusual current reality have a real-life precursor who was a Korean-American intelligence agent during the Second World War and a successful businessman before and after the war, behind household names in both the United States and Korea: Dr. Ilhan New.
Ilhan New’s life illustrates the connections that have existed for over a century between the United States and Korea, especially the part that now is North Korea. It reveals the roots of the relationship that has brought about the strange phenomenon of escapees from North Korea teaming with a U.S. military veteran, and possibly other Korean-Americans, in a group called Free Joseon dedicated to the overthrow of the North Korean regime.
Ilhan New was a living bridge between the United States and Korea, seemingly born and raised for the mission of fighting for the freedom of Korea using American methods and resources. He had been born in Pyongyang in 1895, a few months after the armies of Japan and China had fought over the city during the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War. Japan had defeated China and become the predominant foreign power in Korea in this war, which raged across Korea with him in his mother’s womb. At the age of only nine in 1904 he found himself sent away from the dying kingdom of Korea to the United States, just before Japan again invaded Korea and defeated Russia in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War to establish its hegemony over Korea. His parents hoped that he could learn the American way of life and train for a future war for Korean independence.
Nebraska became his home until his graduation from high school, then Michigan during his college years and early adulthood. Not unlike the young Superman in Smallville, Kansas, he grew up in Hastings, Nebraska, where he attended high school and during the summers did military training in an academy created to train Korean boys for the future war for the liberation of Korea. After graduating from high school in 1915 he went to work for the Detroit Edison electric company to support himself while attending the University of Michigan. There he studied business administration and spent two terms in the ROTC program for further military training, graduating in 1919.
New became a successful businessman in both the United States and Japanese-occupied Korea, all the time continuing to prepare for a war to liberate Korea. In 1922 he and a college classmate named Wally Smith founded the La Choy food company, which pioneered selling Asian foods in America. La Choy stayed a leading producer of packaged American Chinese food into the 1980s and still exists today. New returned to Korea with his knowledge of American business methods in 1926 and started the Yuhan Corporation, a pharmaceutical company. Yuhan opened a chain of pharmacies throughout Korea and then expanded to Japan and other parts of the Japanese Empire, becoming one of the most successful Korean-owned businesses under Japanese rule. The eventual liberation of Korea remained New’s main concern, however, and he built his business as both a commercial enterprise and an underground nationalist organization. When hiring the managers of Yuhan and its branches, New intentionally hired like-minded Korean patriots, to make his business a network of independence activists that one day would be able to support underground activity against Japanese rule.
Yuhan Corporation staff, with Ilhan New in the front row, center-left
In the late 1930s, New re-established himself in the United States in order to be on the right side of the war between Japan and the United States that he knew was coming. He returned to the United States in 1938, ostensibly visiting for business purposes, which included earning an MBA degree from the University of Southern California in 1941. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor he had resettled in Boulder, Colorado with his wife Mary and two children and had become one of the leading Korean independence activists in the United States.
OSS official photo of Ilhan New (front row, center) and employees of Yuhan Corporation, dated 1940
New soon came to the attention of the newly created U.S. intelligence service, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The Department of State and other parts of the U.S. government had long ignored Korean independence activists in the United States, who had been present since the arrival of the nationalist leader Ahn Changho in California in 1902. The OSS broke with four decades of U.S. official inattention because of the visionary leadership of its legendary director, Major General William Donovan.
William Donovan and Korea
William Donovan brought to the OSS an appreciation of Korea and its independence movement that was unique among U.S. leaders of the Second World War. He had seen Korea and its people’s opposition to Japanese rule with his own eyes in the summer of 1919, during a tour of Asia that he took with his wife after his Medal of Honor-winning service as an infantry officer in the First World War. The tour famously took him to Siberia to observe the Russian Civil War and less famously to Korea. He had landed in Korea on June 25, 1919, less than two months after the end of the March First Movement. (Coincidentally, it was exactly 31 years prior to the day of the start of the Korean War, June 25, 1950.) Donovan witnessed first hand Japanese repression in Korea, with police and soldiers in the streets, and the people’s continued attitude of resistance against the occupiers. They made deep impressions on him that he recorded in his diary.
Two decades later Donovan remembered Korean resistance against Japan and sought to make it a central part of OSS operations in Asia. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as President Roosevelt’s Coordinator of Information (COI) prior to the formation of the OSS, Donovan organized a mission to China to contact the Korean government in exile that was in Nationalist China fighting against Japan. In January 1942 he also began planning an OSS-trained and supported Korean force based in China that would conduct sabotage operations against Japanese targets all over Asia.
These early efforts were premature and ended by mid-1942, but the OSS continued to establish and cultivate contacts among Korean leaders in the United States in anticipation of future needs. Ilhan New came to the attention of the OSS in 1942 through the efforts of the agency’s first Korea analyst, Dr. George McCune, an early American scholar of Korea who had been born and raised in Pyongyang. New spent the first several years of the war leading efforts to raise Koreans in the United States to fight in special units with OSS support.
Donovan revived his plans for OSS operations with Koreans as U.S. forces in the Pacific advanced to within striking distance of Japan. To plan and organize operations he chose Colonel Carl Eifler, an OSS pioneer who in 1942-43 had created and led the organization’s first major overseas force, Detachment 101 in Burma.
Colonel Eifler developed an ambitious plan to create teams of Korean agents who would conduct a guerilla war against Japanese forces and lines of communication in Korea, called Project NAPKO. Beginning in January 1944, Eifler searched the OSS and Korean immigrant communities nationwide for volunteers for an organization that he named the Field Experimental Unit (FEU). The FEU developed methods and special boats to land agents onto distant shores in Korea undetected by Japanese coastal defenses, plans for sabotage and creating guerilla bands in strategic areas, and a training program on Catalina Island to turn Korean recruits into agents capable of surviving and operating in a country dominated by Japan’s army and police for four decades.
To execute these operations the FEU would need exceptional people with the ability to operate underground in Korea and leaders equal to an extraordinarily difficult mission. Connections in Korea that could help the FEU’s teams to establish underground networks, in a country where the OSS had never operated before and there had not been any U.S. intelligence or military presence since the 19th Century, would be invaluable if they could be found. Eifler found all of these qualities in Ilhan New, whom he recruited for the mission in early January 1945.
New was 49 years old in 1945, overage for the physically demanding operations planned under Project NAPKO, but the network that he had created with Yuhan Corporation and his willingness to commit it to the mission made him indispensable. His many years in leadership roles in business and in the Korean independence movement also made him a natural choice to lead a team of Korean agents. Eifler had him officially inducted into the U.S. Army in Washington, DC on January 6, and after a short training period in Fort Meade, he reported to the OSS training center for the Pacific Theater on Catalina Island on February 2.
On Catalina Island, New went through the demanding training regimen that Project NAPKO officers had devised to enable their agents to survive, operate, and fight in Japanese-controlled Korea. The agents recruited by Eifler and his staff were a varied group, some of them Korean nationalists resident in the United States for many years, others former prisoners of war who had been drafted into the Japanese army and captured by U.S. forces during the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific. OSS training cadres from the Army and Navy taught them fieldcraft, surveillance methods, identifying enemy forces and fortifications, long-range radio communications, and unarmed combat methods to kill Japanese troops quickly and silently. Agents trained to parachute for airborne insertion into Korea and also trained for infiltration by sea in specialized boats that the OSS developed specifically for Project NAPKO.
GIMIK boat surfaced with its canopy open, viewed from the starboard rear
The boats, code-named GIMIK, were small semisubmersibles designed to fit on the decks of Navy fleet submarines and transport two men to shore or from the shore back to the submarine. Just over 19 feet in length and displacing under two tons, these plywood-hulled boats would be delivered to within 50 miles of an enemy-controlled coast by fleet submarine, then stealthily transport two men to shore under cover of darkness. Their decks were submerged so that only a plexiglass canopy for the pilot, an intake and exhaust snorkel for the gasoline engine, and an air shaft for the pilot and passengers showed above water, and OSS scientists made them practically invisible to radar by wrapping the engine snorkel and air shaft with steel wool that broke up their radar signature. The first two GIMIK boats arrived in June 1945, and the OSS planned to acquire a small fleet of up to 22 boats as Project NAPKO grew.
GIMIK boat semi-submerged and underway
The NAPKO plan called for teams of three to five agents to establish themselves in one area after another of northern and southern Korea. New had a team of four men that he had selected himself, whom he judged trustworthy enough to provide with confidential information about his organization in Korea. They would land near Seoul and operate in and around the city, assisted by the Yuhan Corporation network. Another team of four would land and operate in the Pyongyang area, led by a member of Korean royal family with his own network based on family connections and business interests that extended all over Korea and into Japan. Four more teams were in the formation process by March 1945, designated to operate in rural areas of the west coast of Korea from north of Pyongyang to the southern tip around the port of Mokpo. The plan called for eventually establishing 10 teams operating all over Korea.
The teams would operate under deep cover to establish clandestine networks and prepare Korea for a guerilla war against Japan. Agents would arrive wearing clothing of Korean manufacture and eyeglasses from Korea or Japan, with only radio sets and money as potentially suspicious items. The teams would link up with their designated local networks and as soon as possible establish radio contact with OSS listening stations in the Philippines and northern China. They would radio out information about Japanese forces, military and industrial targets, and other issues of interest. Moreover, they would establish contact points where the GIMIK boats could extract downed American airmen rescued in Korea and Koreans valuable to the resistance movement, including guerilla leaders who would be trained and reinserted into Korea. Rural areas with strong opposition to Japanese rule would be identified and secured, with NAPKO agents and local leaders eliminating collaborators and training Koreans for resistance.
A full-scale revolution against Japanese rule was the ultimate goal. U.S. military officers would land in secured rural areas, to guide the further development of resistance forces and act as liaison with U.S. forces offshore. When ordered by higher command, they would commence sabotage operations and bring in weapons and ammunition to arm growing resistance groups. They would tie down Japanese troops and cut Japan’s only remaining link to its land empire in China while U.S. forces launched the invasion of Japan, which was scheduled to begin in November 1945 and expected to continue into 1947, with massive casualties on both sides.
Trials at sea and on land established the effectiveness of the GIMIK boats and the agent training. The GIMIK boats, piloted by Navy Ensigns George McCullough and Robert Mullen, conducted weekly training runs between Catalina Island and shores south of Los Angeles, and the OSS did not register them with the Coast Guard or Army Air Corps so that they would be subject to attack if spotted by U.S. radar, patrol ships, or aircraft. All of the training runs, with two Korean agents in each boat, sailed undetected through U.S. coastal defenses. Agents proved their skills by infiltrating southern California cities, which may have been more difficult than operating in Korea since groups of Asian men carrying suitcase-sized radios would have been far more conspicuous. One team made its way to the roof of the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel to set up its radio and was caught only because the hotel’s head of security was a prewar friend of Colonel Eifler in the LAPD who had been read into the training exercise. Another found an ideal spot to set up its radio in San Diego’s Balboa Park which turned out to be already occupied by an Army radio post, whose officer detained them at pistol point. Most moved unnoticed through the countryside and cities, making Eifler confident in their ability to carry out their missions.
Project NAPKO had deployed to Okinawa and was making its final preparations for the landings in Korea when the surrender of Japan made the mission unnecessary. The OSS shipped the two GIMIK boats from Long Beach to Okinawa and sent their pilots and maintenance crews separately from San Francisco to Okinawa by sea, while flying the first wave of Korean agent teams to Okinawa for final training. August 26, 1945 became the launch date for the first mission to Korea. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 8 and Emperor Hirohito’s surrender announcement on August 15 brought an immediate end to all of Project NAPKO’s plans. Soon all personnel of the FEU were reassigned to other military duties or returned to the United States and discharged, and by the beginning of November, Project NAPKO and the FEU had ceased to exist.
After the War
The end of the war was a reprieve for Ilhan New and everyone associated with Project NAPKO. The agents of the FEU would have faced great danger if they had landed in Korea, and the men and women of the Yuhan Corporation and other Korean civilian networks would have been at risk of discovery and wholesale arrest by Japanese authorities, with mass torture and executions certain to follow. Instead, they all survived to continue their lives after the war.
Ilhan New returned to Korea and went back to running the Yuhan Corporation, and he and his business both achieved great success. Yuhan became a leading pharmaceutical company in Korea immediately after Korean independence and continuing into the 21st Century. New built a great personal fortune which he used for philanthropic purposes, founding schools and endowing university programs to contribute to the revival of the Korean people after Japanese occupation and the ravages of the Korean War, starting during the war in 1952 and continuing for the rest of his life. Before his passing in 1971 he left his entire personal fortune to a social and educational assistance trust fund, now called the Yuhan Foundation.
Yuhan Corporation website history of Ilhan New’s independence activism and service in OSS Project NAPKO
Memory of the service of Ilhan New and many other Koreans in the OSS has persisted into the 21st Century in Korea, but it is nonexistent in the United States. Ilhan New and other Korean leaders remembered their actions with the OSS proudly, as high points in their years of struggle for the liberation of their homeland. Their successors such as the Yuhan Corporation have perpetuated the story, multiple generations later. In the United States, on the other hand, all U.S. cooperation with Koreans during and before the Second World War has been completely forgotten, or perhaps more accurately, never known in the first place. Project NAPKO stayed classified for half a century after the war, until the final declassification of OSS records during the 1990s, and by then only a small number of surviving Second World War veterans who did not seek publicity remembered it. In English, Project NAPKO exists only in a few fragmentary references, none of which mention Ilhan New or the names of any of his compatriots.
Only one known artifact of Korean service in the OSS remains in the United States: one of the GIMIK boats. Discovered in a Navy storage yard in Newport, Rhode Island in 1972, the boat is preserved in the National PT Boat Museum in Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts. Perhaps fittingly, for many years it was misidentified as a Japanese suicide boat (a mistake which remains on the museum’s website), and only recently has its true identity and history been rediscovered. It is a little-known reminder of a time three quarters of a century ago when Koreans and Americans under the visionary leadership of OSS Director William Donovan created a unique operation in the history of intelligence and special operations.
GIMIK boat in the National PT Boat Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts
Not knowing the story of Ilhan New and his contemporaries has left Americans blind to a part of their history that makes the current actions of Free Joseon readily understandable. The long fight for the liberation of Korea was never complete, as half of Korea became enslaved again by the totalitarian regime of a family that has ruled it for three generations. The United States has had no interest in the liberation of North Korea since the Korean War, maintaining a defensive posture in South Korea for over six decades and then, in fear of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, seeking to normalize relations in exchange for denuclearization. South Korea’s current leftist government under Moon Jae-In has gone even further to avoid any possible offense to North Korea’s regime. It is unsurprising in this environment that some are taking matters into their own hands, as Ilhan New and others did in their time. Some are individuals escaped from North Korea and committed to its liberation, some are Korean Christians seeking to restore Christianity to Pyongyang and northern Korea, and some are Korean-Americans who have not forgotten the country of their forebears.
The would-be liberators of today so far appear to lack what changed the fate of Ilhan New and his contemporaries: the support of any part of the U.S. government. William Donovan and the OSS had been willing to act against U.S. policy of their time that went back half a century, refusing to support Korean independence movements, in order to use every resource available to hasten the defeat of Japan in the Second World War. No comparable incentive exists today, with the United States not at war in East Asia. Free Joseon has likely squandered what little support for its cause may have existed in any parts of the U.S. government by violating one of the basic principles of international law, the protection given to embassies and diplomats, in attempting to establish its relevance. This one mistake should not dictate how Americans view it and other organizations dedicated to the overthrow of the North Korean regime, however, for they may be useful or even badly needed at some time in the future. Time will tell whether or not it happens.
Yuhan Corporation, Our Founder: Dr. Ilhan New, http://eng.yuhan.co.kr/Founder/Ilhan/.
Ilhan New Personnel File, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 226, entry UD 224, container 557.
Diary: Visit to the Orient, Donovan Collection, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, box 132A, Diaries and Reports from 1910 to 1919.
Memorandum for the president from William J. Donovan, no. 186, January 24, 1942; Memorandum for Colonel Donovan: Subject – Scheme “Olivia,” January 27, 1942, Millard Preston Goodfellow Papers, 1942-1967, Hoover Institution Library and Archives.
George McCune, “The Korean Liberty Conference, Washington DC, February 27-28 and March 1” and “Potentialities for Korean Help against Japan,” Donovan Collection, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, box 49, Korea Miscellaneous.
Col. Carl F. Eifler, Field Experimental Unit, Office of Strategic Services, Washington DC, to Maj. Gen. William Donovan, Office of Strategic Services, Washington DC, Napko Project, March 7, 1945, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 226, entry UD 92, container 521, folder 1.
Moon, Thomas and Eifler, Carl, The Deadliest Colonel, New York: Vantage, 1975.
George McCullough, “GIZMO #1 and GIZMO #2,” August 25, 2003 (unpublished manuscript).
Robert Kim, Project Eagle: The American Christians of North Korea in World War II, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.