The Buzz

In 1983, North Korean Special Forces Tried to Assassinate South Korea's Government

There is a tradition amongst North Korean agents: if capture is inevitable, they would sooner die taking as many pursuers with them as possible. He pulls out a hand grenade—which promptly explodes. The blast blows of both his hands and injured dozens of civilians. The major is hospitalized and survives minus an eye and several limbs.

A suspicious local tips of the police after Cpts. Kim Jin-su and Kang Min-cheol attempt to pay him for a boat ride in American dollars. Confronted by law enforcement, Kim commits suicide by grenade, killing a policeman. Kang manages to shoot his way out with a Beligan .25 caliber pistol. Hunted down by Burmese soldiers in a flooded rice paddy, he kills three of them with a grenade before being captured alive.

After hospitalization, Kim and Kang are brought before a Burmese tribunal. Kim’s lips remain sealed and he his hung in 1986. Kang decides to tell everything in return for a life sentence. Pyongyang denies that any of the agents are even citizens of North Korea.

Kang exposes the full machinery of the plot. They had been dispatched by Gen. Kim Chan Su to conduct the hit. Pyongyang believed Chun’s unpopular regime was ripe for revolution, and thought his assassination would suffice to trigger it. But rather than decreasing Chen’s domestic support, the attempts reinforces his position abroad.

The aftermath of the assassination attempt should sound familiar.

Socialist Burma, which earlier had been close to Kim Il-sung, suspends diplomatic relations with North Korea and does not reopen them until 2007.

Beijing is outraged, as always, by this latest bit of mischief, and refuses to take Pyongyang’s calls for several months. Relations between China and South Korea begin to improve.

Seoul raises the alert status of its forces…and does nothing. What can be done to change the regime’s behavior? In fact, relations with Pyongyang resume their thaw in 1985 as the first visits between North and South Korean family members are arranged.

Kang languishes in Insein prison for a quarter century, becoming its longest-serving inmate. Near the end of his life, South Korean parliamentarians try to repatriate him and offer him a chance at a new life, but he passes away from liver cancer in 2008 before anything can be done.

The Aung San Mausoleum is rebuilt but then closed to the public by the regime in 1988, as Aung San’s daughter Suu Kyi becomes a symbol of the democratic resistance movement that year. As the country, now called Myanmar, begins a troubled democratization process, it is reopened in 2011.

Democracy activists would also continue to bedevil President Chun’s administration—he simply cannot arrest them fast enough, and needs to present a good image for the upcoming Seoul Olympics. His handpicked successor, Roh Tae-woo, announces there will be free and fair elections, leading finally to the full democratization of South Korea in 1988, ending decades of repressive military rule.

As for North Korea…it remains the same regime unconcerned with international norms it has always been.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

This first appeared last year.