Mission Unspeakable: When North Koreans Tried to Kill the President of South Korea
On October 9, 1983, while South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan was on a visit to Rangoon, Burma to lay a wreath at the Martyr’s Mausoleum of Swedagon Pagoda, a bomb concealed in the roof exploded, killing 21 people including four senior South Korean officials. President Chun was spared because his car had been delayed in traffic and he was not at the site at the time of the detonation.
Chun had seized power in South Korea in December 1979. His tenure as president was characterized as poor on human rights and strong on economic growth and harshly enforced domestic stability. He was on a diplomatic tour in Rangoon when would-be assassins believed to have received explosives from a North Korean diplomatic facility targeted him. It was during Chun’s administration that South Korea hosted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, in which North Korea refused to participate. As a result of the Rangoon bombing, Burma suspended diplomatic relations with North Korea and Chinese officials refused to meet or talk with North Korean officials for several months.
Thomas (Harry) Dunlop served as Political Counselor under Ambassador Richard L. “Dixie” Walker in Seoul from 1983-1987 and recounted his experiences in an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in July 1996. Paul M. Cleveland served as the Deputy Chief of Mission from 1981-1985 and was interviewed by Thomas Stern in October 1996.
“They arrived in Rangoon on a North Korean freighter disguised as seamen, carrying their explosives”
Thomas (Harry) Dunlop, Political Counselor, South Korea, 1983-1987
DUNLOP: Chun (seen left) was on one of his fairly rare trips abroad. He didn’t travel much outside of South Korea. On this occasion, he took a trip through Southeast Asia, including a stop in Rangoon. At Rangoon, I’m told, there is a marvelous, ancient Buddhist pagoda, the Shwedagon. I haven’t seen it, though I’ve seen pictures of it. Visitors are often taken there and shown this great jewel of the Buddhist culture and faith.
A visit to the Shwedagon was on the schedule for Chun, who was traveling with virtually his entire cabinet, including the Foreign Minister and the Defense Minister. Afterwards, when we looked at the list of people who were traveling with President Chun, we wondered why so many of the senior officials of the South Korean Government were included. He had almost all of his more important cabinet ministers with him.
In Rangoon, among other things, they were scheduled to appear at a ceremony where some prayers would be chanted. They would do what faithful Buddhists do at a 200 year old Buddhist shrine. And Chun was a Buddhist.
There were a lot of photographers and people from the Protocol Divisions of the Burmese and South Korean Foreign Ministries. Chun was a few minutes late. Everybody else had assembled on a special platform at the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Chun was about four blocks away in a car, making his way toward the Pagoda. Suddenly, two “Claymore” type mines were detonated, which swept the whole area with a kind of shrapnel near the special platform where the South Korean cabinet ministers were sitting or standing.
The mines killed 11 South Koreans, including the Foreign Minister, who was a great personal friend of Ambassador [Richard L. “Dixie”] Walker. I had not gotten to know him very well by that time. About seven Burmese officials were also killed. There were 18 people dead and 30 wounded, or something like that. Chun, of course, was not among them.
Within about 24 hours the Burmese had run to ground the four-person assassination team, capturing two and killing two of them. The two people the Burmese captured were badly wounded, but the Burmese were able to get from them the details of how they landed in Rangoon. They arrived in Rangoon on a North Korean freighter disguised as seamen, carrying their explosives, hand grenades, and pistols to defend themselves or commit suicide. They had cyanide tablets, and so forth.
They made their way to the Shwedagon Pagoda. They had been trained to recognize the layout of the Pagoda. They very efficiently placed the explosives there. One of them was actually sitting within the Pagoda area, though out of the range of the explosion, waiting for the time when Chun’s car would arrive.
I think that the Burmese Protocol people came up in a big car, and this North Korean sapper thought that this was Chun. He waited three or four minutes and then pushed the button, causing the explosion. There was no doubt that the North Korean intelligence service had planned this attempted assassination of Chun.
“One person suggested that South Korea could … bomb the house of the President of North Korea”
The first thing we did was to try to be helpful in the pragmatic sense. We sent two airplanes to Rangoon, one of them carrying some US security officers to help the Burmese Government with the investigation. They arrived on the plane that was to take President Chun back to Seoul. We also deployed an AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control Systems] aircraft out of Diego Garcia and sent some fighter escorts with it.
[The AWACS was a] very effective platform for a sophisticated air surveillance radar which could show us what threats might be in the vicinity of this plane. We also flew a hospital plane to Rangoon and medevaced the South Korean Minister of Defense and some others to the hospital at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
The claymore mine attack at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon took place on a Sunday morning. We later learned that when the U.S. Air Force plane carrying President Chun landed in Seoul at 3:00 or 4:00 AM on the Monday morning, Chun convened at Kimpo Airport in Seoul a meeting of the remaining members of his cabinet and the deputy ministers who were going to take the places of those who had been killed or injured.
I am told that there were eight or 10 people in the room at the airport. They were all trying to show President Chun how “outraged” they were and how “macho” they were. They were all giving him ideas about what to do. One person suggested that South Korea could send a bomber strike at Pyongyang, North Korea, and bomb the house of the President of North Korea. Others suggested other possible courses of action. President Chun reportedly said just about four or five things at that meeting.
First of all, he said, “I’m going to make all of these decisions. Nobody is to do anything. And in particular,” pointing to these people who had been so outspoken, “you guys are going to stand down until I tell you what to do. I’m going to take my time and get some sleep. I’m going to talk to some people.” Of course, they knew that he was going to talk to the Americans.
President Chun took a trip to visit his soldiers on Tuesday, the next day, and flew to all of the major South Korean commands. He said a few words to his troops. They were basically the kinds of things that we hoped that he would say.
He told the soldiers that they were strong. He reminded them of what their duties were in the face of this threat, which had been made so manifest. He expressed his confidence in them. That was sort of a trip to hold the hands of the South Korean soldiers. We reported all of that…
Every time a crisis happened involving the communists in North Korea we in the Embassy and the U.S. Government had a lot of hand holding to do with the South Korean authorities. We did not have a relationship with the South Koreans that made us totally confident that they wouldn’t do something not only weird but, perhaps, dangerous, if they felt themselves under threat.
We were not totally confident that they would consult with us and would take our advice which, I am sure, was given to them many times, to act in a “restrained” way, to think twice, and to avoid doing anything which could make a bad situation worse…
However, it wasn’t always a matter of our trying to restrain the crazy South Koreans. They were faced with a lot of provocation from North Korea. There were many assassination attempts against President Park [Chung-Hee] and Chun [Doo-Hwan]…So there were reasons for the South Koreans being “antsy” and for us being concerned that they would do something that, in our view, they shouldn’t do…
One of the things that always happens when incidents like this occur, like the explosion in Rangoon, the “shoot down” of KAL Flight 007, the Chinese torpedo boats, or whatever, Washington always gets very, very nervous. People like “Dixie” and me start getting phone calls.
One of the things that we were trying to do was to find out what was happening on the South Korean side and also to calm down the nervous Nellies back in Washington. We tried to tell the people in Washington that we didn’t think that the world was coming to an end because of this incident.
I suppose that after this an even harder job that we had was to convince Washington that Chun was as rational and unbelligerent as he seemed to be. Because, as you reflected, and I did, too, how can a politician fail to say, “We’ve got to do SOMETHING.” He wisely didn’t do anything, actually…
“We stand with you, but let’s talk before doing anything”
We had a letter to him from President Reagan…I was always kind of the “fixer” in these kinds of things. I informed the Foreign Ministry that Ambassador Walker would like to deliver a letter of condolences, sympathy, and support to President Chun. We arranged a meeting for about 2:00 PM that Monday afternoon. As always, Ambassador Walker went over alone. Chun did not want other Americans attending his meetings with the American Ambassador, and particularly other Americans who spoke Korean. (The Reagans and the Chuns are seen at left.)
One of my professional criticisms of Ambassador “Dixie” Walker, much as I admired him in many respects, is that he always rolled over for this. He let the Koreans do the interpreting. He had no record of this meeting other than what he could remember of what happened. There was no confirmation, and that was unwise and unprofessional. He shouldn’t have done this. I told him this any number of times, but he never changed.
“Dixie” came back from this meeting with Chun saying that Chun was calm, rational, and composed. Chun was clearly fatigued to an extreme degree, very weary. However, “Dixie” saw no sign of mental stress or anything that would have affected his judgment.
I might add that “Dixie” was not a great admirer of Chun. “Dixie” didn’t think that Chun “hung the moon up in the sky” by any means. He had a lot of respect for him as a smart man, and I think that we all agreed with that. Anyway, “Dixie” came away from this meeting with Chun thinking that Chun had a lot of reserve strength. (Walker is at right.)
As I recall, we did not have to do much more than say what was in that letter from President Reagan to President Chun. The letter more or less said, “I know how deeply you are enraged, horror-stricken, and saddened by this assault on yourself and your colleagues. We stand with you, but let’s talk before doing anything.” I don’t think that we ever did much more than that…
[Chun] really did not have much concern about public opinion and the National Assembly that his successors have had since the democratization of the political process in South Korea. On the other hand, this kind of political pressure was not totally absent. One of the things that a leader like that has to do is to watch his own military. They have real clout. If they think that he is being “weak” and “namby pamby,” this might be an excuse for some very energetic and ambitious person to say, “Well, we can do this job better than he can…”
Chun was a very reserved and inward-looking man. He never took a great many people into his confidence. He wasn’t a back slapper. He wasn’t a very congenial, convivial person. Like all Koreans, he had to go through this routine of having drinking parties with his close associates. However, even they would say that Chun was not a lot of fun.
However, he made quite important decisions at times, and this was one of them.
“It was an incredible act which reinforced my view that the North Korean regime was brutal and cruel”
Paul M. Cleveland, Deputy Chief of Mission, South Korea, 1981-1985
CLEVELAND: I was horrified by the North Korean action. It was a terrible heinous deed. It was such a clumsy effort to try to overthrow Chun Doo-Hwan. I think they expected to destabilize the South through their efforts and perhaps bring to power a regime more to their liking. (Cleveland is at left.)
I don’t remember that tensions had risen in the previous few weeks or months, but I think it was probably more an opportunity to take a crack at Chun Doo Hwan because he didn’t travel outside of Korea very much. Burma was a country which was accessible to North Koreans and where security was not as strict as it was in other countries. It was an incredible act which reinforced my view that the North Korean regime was brutal and cruel…
“Dixie” did a wonderful job during this period; he paid his respects to all of the families of the assassinated Koreans. He spent a lot of time with them and I think, in light of Korean culture, this was a tremendously important gesture which was warmly appreciated not only by the families but by the Koreans generally…
[T]he attempt on his life gave Chun some sympathy from his people that he would not have gotten otherwise. Unfortunately, as I remember, Chun came back and gave a speech in which he gloried in the fact that he was still alive and that therefore all was well for his country. I think that seriously dampened the sympathy that might have lasted longer had he not opened his mouth. The speech made it clear that he was primarily concerned about himself and only secondarily about his government’s officials who had given their lives in the service of their country…
Neither Chun [nor] his wife ever won the respect of the Korean people — at least those with whom I had contact — the middle class, academics, business people and even some military. All of them referred to Chun Doo-Hwan in disparaging terms; they called him “stone head” — he was bald.
They thought that Chun’s wife had a “very sharp chin” — i.e. they thought that she and her family were deeply involved in major corruption. This was a strong negative under-current, which grew as the middle class grew and felt stronger and stronger.
I think that at least some of the government officials understood what was going on in Korea. On one occasion, Park Gun Woo at a session at the Nadja Hotel coffee shop–where we met when we had important matters to discuss–literally broke down and cried.
I was stunned; I had never seen a Korean cry and to have an official do so was unforgettable. Park had just been in the US with Chun Doo Hwan on a visit. He and the Foreign Minister had during the flight back been called into the President’s cabin for dialogue.
Park said that the only thing Chun could talk about was “his personal survival.” He was deeply embarrassed and outraged that the President of his country would be so obsessed with that issue. It was clear to Gun that his government had become so dictatorial that the leader of it was solely concerned with his own survival. He thought that Korea deserved better than that. And he sobbed.
I suspect that Gun’s tears when he had coffee with me at the Nadja Hotel…stemmed from the characteristic showed by Chun’s reaction to the [Rangoon] Burma incident. Chun was an egomaniac and a terrible human being besides. He deserves his current address — jail.