Painful memories of Rangoon

2013-10-04 : 18:39

From left, Presidential Chief of Staff Ham Byeong-chun, South Korean Ambassador to Burma Lee Gye-cheol, Energy-Resources Minister Suh
Sang-chul, Commerce-Industry Minister Kim Dong-hwi, Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok and Deputy Premier-Economic Planning Minister Suh
Seok-jun await the arrival of then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Myanmar, Oct. 9, 1989, just moments before a deadly North Korean bombing attack. None of them survived the blast.
/ Yonhap

Park's posthumous book recalls deadly attack of 1983

The late Park Chang-seok

By Kim Tong-hyung

A survivor of a deadly North Korean bomb attack in Myanmar 30 years ago, which targeted then-South Korean leader Chun Doo-hwan and killed 21 people, Park Chang-seok would often tell how he cheated death by seconds.

The incident appears to be one of the last things he thought about before his real death. Park, a longtime journalist and former colleague of The Korea Times, died of heart failure during the Chuseok holidays last month.

According to those close to him, it was not until a couple of days before his unexpected death that he submitted the draft for his book, “Aung San Recount,” posthumously released by Baeksan Publishing last week.

In the book, Park conveys his personal memories of the 1983 bombing in Rangoon, where he was covering Chun’s presidential visit to the country then called as Burma as a journalist for the Times, mixing them with conversations with fellow survivors and facts from investigation records.

This is an opinionated account of the incident and not an attempt at adding to the intellectual debate about its influence. To be fair, there is not much more that could be said about one of the most significant events in the country’s post-war history, which irrevocably reshaped inter-Korean relations and the balance between the two countries in world diplomacy.

The Korea Times editions of Oct. 10 and Oct. 11, 1983, reporting the North Korean bombing attacks on the South Korean delegation.
/ Korea Times photo by Kim Tong-hyung

“Aung San Recount,” by Park Chang-seok, Baeksan Publishing

The value of the book is that it offers a dramatic, first-person narrative of the moments leading to and after the bombing of Oct. 9 and how it’s remembered by government officials and journalists who survived it.

Park is also critical of the decision-making that led Chun to pick Burma as the first destination of his presidential tour that was to also stop in India, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand.

While Burma was a member of the non-aligned bloc, it was closer in its diplomatic relations with North Korea than the South at the time, Park argues.

Just a month before the bombing, a South Korean passenger jet was shot down by a Soviet missile over the waters near Sakhalin Island, killing all 269 people on board. Park wonders whether Chun was overzealous to exploit the international sympathy over the incident to broaden the country’s diplomatic reach.

The book is written both in Korean and English. Regrettably to international readers, the English part of the book is only a dry summary of the more extensive details Park provides in the Korean part.

Seventeen South Korean officials — including cabinet members, lawmakers and a journalist — and four Burmese people were killed from the bombing as they waited for Chun to visit Rangoon’s Martyrs’ Mausoleum. Chun narrowly escaped because he was several minutes late for the event to lay a wreath for Burmese independence hero, General Aung San.

Three North Korean suspects were identified and one died while being arrested. Of the other two, one confessed and was jailed for life, while the other was hanged. After the incident Burma cut diplomatic ties with North Korea, but resumed them in 2007.

The blast shattered Park’s eardrum, but he still was one of the journalists healthy enough to take an emergency flight back to Seoul hours later. Park and Kwon Ki-jin of Seoul Shinmun were the first reporters from the scene who managed to write back home. There was a lot of shouting in their conversation as they cross-checked facts because Kwon’s hearing was impaired as well, Park recalls in the book.

“‘Bang! Bang!’ With ear-splitting sounds and a strong fire wind blowing, the mausoleum’s roof was blown off and people were seeing running out of the building with their faces covered with their hands, bleeding,” Park wrote in an article that appeared in the Oct. 11, 1983, edition of the Times.

“A cloud of smoke and dust from the explosion hindered my sight and I could smell strong gunpowder, and the sky was now seen from the inside of the mausoleum for Burmese hero Gen. Aung San,” he continued.

“Immediately after the blast, both Korean and Burmese security officers rushed to the scene and carried the bodies of the dead and injured from the debris to the hospitals in cars and trucks. The incident took place so suddenly that Korean officials were unable to protect themselves. There was no doubt of a premeditated and well-organized plot in the tragic case.”

In the book, Park wonders whether he would have died if not for South Korean diplomat Song Young-shik. Then a councilor at the South Korean embassy in Burma, Song drew Park a few steps away from the entrance to explain to him about the historical backgrounds of the Martyrs’ Mausoleum. The bombs went off moments later.

“When I gathered myself back, my head was covered in debris, rocks and pieces of wood. The mausoleum was covered in black smoke and collapsed by the whirling force of the explosion,” Park recalled in the book.

“Song and I crawled back about 20 meters down a slope, avoiding the debris that was still flying here and there. The scene was horrific, filled with moaning and fire ... the bodies of deputy premier Suh Seok-jun, foreign minister Lee Beom-seok, commerce-industry minister Kim Dong-hwi and energy sources minister Suh Sang-chul were burnt and twisted amid the fire and debris.”