Key point: This bombing nearly killed all of South Korea's government. It was a major provocation and yet Pyongyang did it anyway.
It is 10 AM October 9, 1983. South Korea’s President Chun Doo-hwan is in the capital of Burma on a state visit.
It is no secret his military government is struggling. The Republic of Korea may be growing more prosperous year after year, but its citizens grow ever more impatient with the repression used to hold it together. Chun is known as the Butcher of Gwangju for dispatching the army in 1980 to kill hundreds of democracy activists immediately prior to his assuming office.
There is tragedy to contend with as well; the month prior, a Soviet fighter shot down a Korean airliner with hundreds of passengers on board. At least relations with South Korea’s traditional enemy to the north seem relatively manageable.
Now President Chun is traveling abroad on the advice of the foreign minister, Lee Beom-Seok, that he should improve relations with nonaligned governments like India and Burma. In Rangoon (Yangon today) he will lay a wreath on the tomb of Aung San, the father of Burmese independence from English colonial rule. The politician’s life was cut tragically short in 1947 when paramilitaries murdered him and six of his cabinet ministers. They are commemorated in the Martyr’s mausoleum, located next to the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda.
The senior members of Chun Doo Hwan’s cabinet are all assembled on a platform inside the mausoleum. But the president himself is not there. The Burmese foreign minister has asked to enter the Mausoleum together with the president. As he is behind schedule, so is Chun.
Suddenly, at 10:25 a car with South Korean flags pulls up. A bugler trumpets his arrival.
Suddenly all hell breaks loose.
A thunderous blast rips through from the roof of the mausoleum, causing it to collapse, and a cloud of chalky white smoke erupts outwards, obscuring all vision. When it clears, the assembled political elite are barely visible buried under the fallen roof pilings and girders blown out of the ceiling. The horrifying event is captured by a Japanese cameraman.
Foreign Minister Lee Beom-Seok is dead. So is Deputy Prime Minister Suh Sang-chul. So are the ministers of commerce and energy. So are the vice ministers of finance, of agriculture, of science and technology. So are ten more South Korean politicians, journalists and guards. Four Burmans have also died who had only wished to take photos of a state visit. Forty-six more people are injured by the blast.
But President Chun is not to be found in the wreckage. His car was only a minute away from arriving when the blast massacred his cabinet. The bugler had mistakenly sounded for the car of the South Korean ambassador, who perished in the attack.
The president’s limousine peels around upon receiving the news. One wonders if, during the drive to the airport, Chen harbored any doubts as to the perpetrators of the deed.
Three days later, three North Korean special forces officers are running for their lives.
Prior to the attack, they had slipped into Rangoon via a freighter on September 23, disguised as seamen and made their way to the North Korean diplomatic mission. There they received three claymore mines—an anti-personnel weapon, which when triggered by remote control, blasts hundreds of steel balls in a focused direction. At 2 AM on October 7, they had rigged them to the roof of the mausoleum, oriented to blast downwards. Then Major Zin Bo triggered the blast remotely by radio—though fortunately, only one of the devices actually went off.
Now, if they can make it to a waiting speedboat on the Rangoon River, it will whisk them onto a freighter that will them return to their homeland, where high honor awaits.
But their spymasters have betrayed them. There is no escape boat. The freighter was denied entry into the port, and their handlers deemed it better not tell them there would be no escape.
Zin is cornered by a mob at Lake Pazundaung. The local Burmese, egged on by a fifty-two year old woman selling liquor on the jetty, are suspicious of foreigners in this heavily isolated country.
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.