This article first appeared in The Diplomat on May 16, 2014.
Kang Min-cheol was a mass murderer, killing nearly two dozen people in an attempt to blow up South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan and his delegation, including cabinet ministers, in Rangoon, Burma in 1983. He was also a member of the notorious Kang Chang-su Unit, a North Korean Special Forces team named after its commanding officer, Brigadier General Kang Chang-su (no relation).
Yet Kang was also a Cold War casualty and a victim in the decades-long inter-Korean conflict, according to former vice minister of South Korea’s spy agency, Ra Jong-yil, who profiles the man in his recent book The Aung San Terrorist Kang Min-cheol.
Published last October, on the thirtieth anniversary of the infamous bombing Ra’s book is more than a character profile of a killer. In it, he draws a picture of how thousands of forgotten young men like Kang from both North and South Korea were trained and used on dangerous missions long after the Korean War officially ended in 1953. Many of these men were then cast aside and forgotten after their missions ended.
Ra would seem an unlikely source for a sympathetic account of the life of one of North Korea’s most deadly spies. Now a professor at a university in Seoul – and formerly an ambassador to Japan and Great Britain, in addition to his service at the spy agency – he appears to be cut from a familiar cloth among South Korea’s political class, garbed in a crisply ironed shirt, a conservative suit and tie, and primed short-cut hair.
In Burma on an official visit, the South Korean president planned to lay a wreath at the Martyr’s Mausoleum to commemorate Aung San — considered the founder of modern Burma — and the father of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Kang and two other North Korean operatives planted a bomb in the ceiling of the mausoleum. On that cloudy tropical Sunday morning on October 9, they waited for their target, disguised as locals outside the venue.
But the assassins missed their mark. Chun cheated them, and death. He was delayed by the Burmese foreign minister who was supposed to accompany him to the venue.
A Burmese honor guard trumpeter, mistaking the entrance of South Korean Ambassador to Burma Lee Gye-chol for the arrival of the president, signaled the beginning of the ceremony. Kang and his comrades remotely detonated the bomb.
Chaos ensued, some of it captured by Japanese TV. The bomb tore through the mausoleum and scores of people, scattering limbs and timber among a cacophony of smoke, confusion and screams.
Among the dead were 17 South Koreans, including top government ministers, a National Assembly representative, and a journalist.
‘Not the Whole Story’
“The terrorist attack at Aung San cannot be isolated from the circumstances prevailing on the Korean Peninsula. We cannot single out that incident and say ‘North Korea again committed an act of terrorism and barbarism.’ That is not the whole story. That happened in the context of the North-South conflict in the early 1980s,” said Ra, in a recent interview with The Diplomat.
North Korea denied any connection with the attack or with Kang. In the South, the deed was declared an atrocity. For his crime, Kang was “erased,” Ra said.
In 2008, after languishing in a Rangoon cell for 25 years, Kang eventually succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 53. He was survived by no known wife, no family, and no country.
Ra depicted Kang in The Aung San Terrorist in an effort to finally recognize the thousands of young men from both Koreas trained as secret soldiers, used in covert operations, and then tossed aside.
Political leaders denied the missions of these secret soldiers ever took place, misled their families, and lied to the public, according to Ra.
In The Aung San Terrorist, Ra unmasks political leaders on both sides as culpable in “erasing the lives” of men like Kang. He accuses both nations of wiping away any trace of their very existence.
Approximately 13,000 anti-North agents were trained from 1951 to 1994 by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Defense Intelligence Command, according to one report. Among them, some 7,800 never returned from their mission. Since it was first revealed that South Korea trained Special Forces agents of its own, awareness of them has grown.
The Aung San Terrorist comes after former National Assembly representative Kim Seong-ho’s We The Erased Faces (2006) and after Broadcaster SBS featured the topic early last year on its I Want To Know This current affairs program.
But despite increased attention, recognition and compensation has not followed.
An epigraph in Ra’s book from a 2009 speech by novelist Murakami Haruki points to why a former vice minister of national intelligence would write a book decrying the mistreatment of a confessed North Korean assassin in a Rangoon prison. Murakami is quoted as saying:
“If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg, because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile shell. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals.”
“We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark and too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth and strength. We must not let the system control us, and create who we are.”
Kang and the two others — Kim Jin-su and Shin Ki-chul — tried desperately to escape. They headed for the river and for a speedboat that would take them to a freighter in Rangoon Harbor. But the boat was not there. So, they split up, with Shin in the lead. They made their way down stream as stealthily as possible toward the harbor and a waiting freighter.
Shin was intercepted by the Burmese police. He tried to shoot his way clear, but was gunned down.
It would not have mattered anyway; there was no freighter. North Korean planners did not tell the men that the freighter was denied entrance into Rangoon Harbor. Pyongyang feared that the information could discourage them from completing their mission.
With grenades and guns, Kang and Kim similarly attempted the shoot their way out, but their grenades were booby trapped and they blew themselves up. Kang lost his right arm.
Miraculously, the two men survived. Kim was later executed; a Burmese court spared Kang. In exchange, he revealed the planning and thinking that went into the bombing. North Korea had indeed intended to assassinate the South Korean president, but its ambitions were much greater. According to Ra, planners in Pyongyang believed they could incite a revolution in the South with a single audacious provocation.
Chun had seized power just three years earlier in a bloody military coup d’etat, and massacred hundreds — thousands by some estimates — in Gwangju, to brutally put down a popular democratic uprising against his regime.
It was true that Chun was not liked at home and had only tepid support abroad. His backers were well aware of it. Chun and those young military officers who took power sought to strengthen their position by reaching out to non-aligned nations.
The South Korean strongman’s visit to Burma was one leg of a multi-nation Asia trip to India, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand.
A young Ban Ki-moon — today the secretary-general of the United Nations, then chief of staff to Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok, who was killed in the bombing – dubbed the diplomatic gesture, “the Chrysanthemum Strategy,” after the flower known to bloom in October.
North Korea’s plot backfired. Although Chun’s trip was cut short, his outreach to non-aligned movement nations such as India continued. Moreover, China was infuriated with its pugnacious ally. (Some things never change.) Burma cut off ties with North Korea altogether. International condemnation of the bombing was universal.
Despite that, a softening of the ideological sclerosis between North and South Korea followed. Kim Il-sung and Chun Doo-hwan initiated a North-South détente. Kang was forgotten.
“During these talks in the 1980s between Kim Il-sung and Chun Doo-hwan, there was never ever any mention of this young man. I think these two men deserve most of the blame for what happened in Burma,” Ra said, adding that back then almost no regard was ever paid to those caught in the North-versus-South ideological grinder.
When a U.S. Army excavation team discovered the remains of North Korean soldiers during a search for remains of their own, for example, no one wanted to receive them.
“They discovered the remains of about 23 or 24 North Korean soldiers. They asked the North Koreans to take them back, but the North refused. The South Korean government, too, was not moved at all.”
The Americans ended up hiring a Buddhist monk on their own, and conducted their own funeral ceremony for the soldiers.
“I was so angry about that,” said Ra. “Do we really deserve re-unification while we neglect our own people, and while we neglect the lives of these men?”