The Past and Present of North Korean Belligerence: Rangoon 1983

By | July 07, 2017 | No Comments

On September 9, 1983, North Korean agents blew up a piece of Burmese history (the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon). The attack was supposed to result in the death of ROK President Chun Doo-hwan. | Image: Yonhap

North Korean nuclear intimidation attracts a lot of attention. This past week’s missile test and ongoing nuclear threats remind us of the fact: eyeballs are readily drawn to the leader’s embrace of his military team, and to the plumes of smoke arcing into the sky of North Pyongan Province. But when it comes to how military moves impact Pyongyang’s strategy and outlook toward Seoul, a great many more types of violence must be considered. Inter-Korean relations rest upon a broad spectrum of real and potential violent acts. On the US and Republic of Korea side, we can see special forces training, discussion of decapitation strikes, and updated “kill chains.” From the North, news earlier this year of the use of a nerve agent in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam in a public airport in Malaysia acts as a further potent reminder of the methods that Pyongyang is willing to deploy when set upon a killing mission. 

In a brand new Sino-NK essay written from the archives in Seoul, analyst Eungseo Kim takes us back to another dramatic North Korean assassination attempt, this time of a sitting South Korean president in 1983. Using newly excavated sources, the writer brings fresh relevance to the discussion, forcing us to contemplate what international goals North Korean state agencies and the country’s leaders may wish to serve with their audacious overseas operations. Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

The Past and Present of North Korean Belligerence: Rangoon 1983

by Eungseo Kim

One month after a South Korean civilian aircraft (KAL 007) was shot down over Russia by the Soviet Union in September 1983, East Asia was plunged into controversy once again by another communist regime: North Korea. The occasion was an official South Korean visit to Burma by a delegation led by President Chun Doo-hwan. On October 9 in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, several bombs exploded in an obvious attempt to assassinate President Chun. He survived only because he was late arriving at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum, but 17 senior ROK officials and journalists lost their lives.

The so-called Rangoon Bombing shocked South Korea and the wider region. It was the first terrorist attack by the DPRK outside the Korean Peninsula, and reminded them of Pyongyang’s unchanging belligerence, heretofore symbolized by the January 1968 raid on the Blue House that had been intended to kill another sitting president, Park Chung-hee.

Although Pyongyang denied involvement in the terrorist action, at the end of an official investigation the Burmese government declared that the explosion had been part of an elaborate plan carried out by North Korean agents. Burma renounced its diplomatic relations with the DPRK in response, ordering North Korean diplomats to leave the country within 24 hours. North Korea encountered harsh international criticism, and inter-Korean relations reached the brink of a military clash.

And yet, even after almost 35 years, a substantial portion of the Rangoon Bombing story remains surprisingly vague. This is not only down to our inability to access relevant North Korean documents; the incident also escaped close attention elsewhere once the Cold War came to an end. Fortunately, then, newly declassified documents in the South Korean Diplomatic Archive have opened up opportunities for understanding the motivation behind North Korea’s behavior back in 1983, and its contemporary implications.

The Rise of South Korea and Increased Fear of Diplomatic Isolation | We can cite three factors, two diplomatic and one domestic, that led North Korea to commit the atrocity. First, Kim Il-sung felt that he needed to undermine Seoul’s increasing domestic and international political power. The political and economic gap between the two Koreas had been widening since the early 1980s, which inevitably weakened Pyongyang. According to UN statistics, ROK GDP per capita surpassed that of the DPRK for the first time in 1974; US$571 versus US$515. The gap had increased to almost three times by 1980; US$ 1,735 versus US$639. Based on that rapid economic growth, the political influence of South Korea in the Third World started to outstrip that of North Korea.1)Declassified diplomatic documents of South Korea, 727.11-XH (2013-0048-06), 171-179. Two decisions made in 1981 showed the economic and political development of South Korea while at the same time highlighting the backwardness of the North: the choice of Seoul to host the 24th Olympic Games (to be held in 1988) and 10th Asian Games (held in 1986). These caused Kim Il-sung to worry greatly about diplomatic isolation, and pushed him into action to reverse the situation. North Korea demanded to co-host the Olympics, and showed an interest in China’s economic reforms. However, his plans failed to produce meaningful results.

In 1981, Seoul was determined as a host city of the 24th summer Olympic Games (in competition with Japanese city, Nagoya), which proved the economic success of South Korea. | Image: Yonhap

The second factor was Pyongyang’s attempt to adjust its love-hate dynamic with old allies in Beijing and Moscow. When regional security deteriorated in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the Reagan Doctrine (signalling the end of détente) in the early 1980s, the two powerful triangular alliances in East Asia developed in different directions. Under the strong leadership of Reagan, the US-led allies of East Asia re-addressed the tensions which had been widespread during the period of détente and completely recovered their bond in the fight against Soviet expansionism.

Conversely, the region’s communist regimes failed to moderate their inner conflicts in spite of unstable regional security. China and the Soviet Union did not find a way out of a longstanding feud brought on by increased Soviet military build-up in regions close to China’s borders in Afghanistan, Mongolia, and Indochina. The Chinese thought that the massive Soviet military presence in its immediate neighborhood was a risk to its security. At the same time, the Soviets believed that Beijing had not changed its Cold War strategy of becoming a regional power by dragging the US into East Asia.

Initially, North Korea attempted to moderate bilateral relations between and with the two. Considering that Kim Il-sung was hesitant to go on any overseas trips, his consecutive visits to Beijing and Moscow in the early 1980s proved how much he wanted to consolidate communist unity in the face of diplomatic isolation.2)Adrian Buzo, The Guerilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999. It was true that North Korea got some results from this, recovering economic and military cooperation with both its allies. At the same time, however, the Chinese and Soviets were clearly more interested in enlarging their ties with Seoul than easing Pyongyang’s concerns.3)Declassified diplomatic documents of South Korea, 14091-721.1US (2010-0008), 235-240. For North Korea, it was necessary to take other measures to disrupt the communist allies’ coming embrace of Seoul.

Therefore, facing unfavorable regional circumstances, Pyongyang drove its foreign policy in a much riskier direction. In this sense, the Rangoon Bombing was a means of hindering the rise of South Korea and undermining international events scheduled to take place in Seoul, as well as drawing Soviet and Chinese attention to the DPRK. It is likely that Kim Il-sung calculated that escalating a crisis on the Korean Peninsula would kill two birds with one stone: instability in the region would both lead to concerns over security at the Seoul Olympics and result in a common front between the DPRK, USSR and China against the US-led alliance.4)Sangsook Lee, “The Study on the purpose and effects of North Korean Rangoon Bombing,” Discourse 201, 19-3, 2016. 90-95. Even though Pyongyang did not acknowledge its involvement in the Rangoon bombing, the attack an attempt to bring about these objectives.5)Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Daily), November 5, 1983; Declassified diplomatic documents of South Korea, 701 (2013-0006-10), 71-74. However, at odds with these expectations, North Korea’s brinkmanship actually seriously damaged the unity of the communist bloc and made Pyongyang’s isolation worse.

In September 1982, Kim Il-sung visited Beijing in pursuit of improving bilateral relations in 8 years. The next year, Kim Jong-il also met Deng Xiaoping in Beijing. | Image: 360doc

In addition to diplomatic rationales, there was probably a domestic North Korean reason for the Rangoon Bombing. At the 6th Congress of the Korean Worker’s Party in 1980, Kim Jong-Il was publicly elevated as successor to Kim Il-sung. Even though Kim Jong-il had taken up roles in a couple of party organizations since the early 1960s, the party had not made this work — or his existence — public. But after he came to the forefront in 1980, the stable transfer of power from Kim Il-sung became a key variable in domestic politics. Compared to Kim Il-sung, who maintained charismatic leadership of the party and army as an independence fighter and hero, a lack of military experience was Kim Jong-il’s weakness. It made it harder for him to both control the senior staff of his father’s generation and enjoy the personality cult he was to inherit. For Kim Jong-il, the rise of a new military regime in Seoul and the robust anti-communist alliance also disrupted his plan to consolidate power. Thus, it is likely that Kim deliberately ordered acts of terrorism to strengthen his hold and promote himself as a military figure. As Chun Doo-hwan revealed in a “special speech,” North Korea had actually schemed to assassinate him in Canada and the Philippines even before the Rangoon Bombing; its provocative behavior was substantive and consistent throughout the early 1980s.6)Special speech of President Chun Doo-hwan by the time the Rangoon Bombing took place, 20 October 1983, Presidential Library of ROK. Diplomatically, the Rangoon Bombing turned out to be a disaster for North Korea; at the same time, Kim Jong-il emerged as the new leader precisely by proving his iron resolve.

Path Dependence: North Korea’s Aggression after the Cold War | The truth of the Rangoon Bombing will only appear in full when the DPRK opens its doors to the outside. Nevertheless, what took place in Rangoon has two implications for our understanding of North Korean foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. Firstly, North Korea tends to resolve crises by taking provocative measures rather than moving toward conciliation or rapprochement when its survival could be at stake. In the wake of the end of détente, North Korea faced several challenges, including a re-escalating Cold War, stagnant Sino-Soviet relations, reinforced US-led tripartite alliance, and a rising new military regime in South Korea. These not only brought diplomatic isolation for North Korea, but also pushed Pyongyang to take action to try and turn circumstances to its advantage.

The Rangoon Bombing, coupled with other plans to undermine regional security, was an outcome of calculating that the crisis on the Korean Peninsula would increase North Korea’s diplomatic leverage in competition with South Korea and consolidate communist bloc unity. North Korea’s hostility in a crisis can also of course be proved by the development of its nuclear program, which was expedited in the late 1980s when, in the face of the collapse of the communist bloc, it came to the conclusion that only self-reliant national defense could secure its survival. Since then, showcasing its military capabilities has been the country’s main survival strategy.

Secondly, during turnovers of political power, belligerence may emerge in the North Korean foreign policy line. Considering the highly militarized characteristics of North Korea, this could be more evident when the successor does not have a military background. Kim Jong-il, like Kim Jong-un, did not have the experience of military service, and thus had to improve his position within the military and outweigh his potential rivals. Kim Il-sung was in a completely different situation. The founder of the Kim kingdom, he and his partisans removed political rivals such as Pak Hon-yong and took advantage of the Korean War to tighten control over the military. Kim Jong-il couldn’t do the same. Instead, he contrived a number of military operations, including the Rangoon Bombing, as a means to extend his leadership and prove his firmness in the face of anti-communist foes.

On November 23, 2010, Yeonpyeong-do, a South Korean island, was seriously damaged by North Korean shelling. It was the first shelling of South Korean sovereign territory leading to civilian deaths since the 1953 armistice. | Image: Yonhap

This is still a valid explanation for North Korean actions. The rise of Kim Jong-un as successor to Kim Jong-il involved two violent provocations against South Korea in 2010: the sinking of the corvette ROKS Cheonan in March and bombardment of Yeongpyeong Island, just a few miles from the NLL (Northern Limit Line) in November. The latter was the first military attack on South Korean sovereign territory since the Korean War, and caused grave casualties — the deaths of two civilians and two military personnel — and serious damage to property. Kim Jong-un was appointed successor in September 2010 when he assumed the vice chairmanship of the CMC (Central Military Commission of the Korean Workers’ Party) and was made a KPA (Korean People’s Army) general at the same time. Kim Jong-un was a young and inexperienced leader with a degree from a military university but not a military career. Therefore, it was essential for him to strengthen his control over the military as his father had done in the 1980s. In this regard, the stable transfer of political power can be seen as one of motivating variables behind the two attacks.7)Bruce Klingner, “The Cheonan: a Retrospective Assessment,” The Heritage Foundation, 2011

The Rangoon Bombing remains a piece of hidden history, to be illuminated when the division of the two Koreas comes to an end. However, it is not inappropriate to conclude based on the evidence available that the incident was North Korea’s response to the challenges of the early 1980s: diplomatic isolation and father-to-son handover of political control. Given that the security environment in East Asia has not changed substantially since the 1980s, North Korea’s decision to bomb Rangoon in 1983 is meaningful for those seeking to understand the country’s behavior now.

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1. Declassified diplomatic documents of South Korea, 727.11-XH (2013-0048-06), 171-179.
2. Adrian Buzo, The Guerilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
3. Declassified diplomatic documents of South Korea, 14091-721.1US (2010-0008), 235-240.
4. Sangsook Lee, “The Study on the purpose and effects of North Korean Rangoon Bombing,” Discourse 201, 19-3, 2016. 90-95.
5. Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Daily), November 5, 1983; Declassified diplomatic documents of South Korea, 701 (2013-0006-10), 71-74.
6. Special speech of President Chun Doo-hwan by the time the Rangoon Bombing took place, 20 October 1983, Presidential Library of ROK.
7. Bruce Klingner, “The Cheonan: a Retrospective Assessment,” The Heritage Foundation, 2011