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Peter Ward is a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy, as well as a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna.
This is part two of a series on North Korea’s efforts to stop the ’88 Seoul Olympics. You can read part one here.
The North Korean government was not happy when the “flunkeys of the U.S. imperialists” in capitalist South Korea were awarded the 1988 Summer Olympics in 1981. They had seven years to disrupt the games by whatever means, short of a war they knew they would surely lose.
The famous German theorist of war, Clausewitz, once said that “war is politics by other means”: Kim Il Sung had been a guerrilla fighter back in the 1930s, and he rather enjoyed a spot of unconventional warfare.
Back in 1968 he had ordered the storming of the Blue House, the residence and office of South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The target was left unharmed: the raid ultimately resulted in the deaths of dozens of soldiers, but the government remained intact. It was followed by another attempt to assassinate Park in 1974, by this time full-blown dictator. Once again he survived, but this time his wife was killed.
Kim Il Sung, self-styled plucky leader of the Third World Non-Aligned Movement, revolutionary theoretician, and “defiantly victorious in the face of U.S. imperialist aggression,” was clearly a fan of assassinations.
THE RANGOON BOMBING
His son Kim Jong Il also had ambitions that were far less all-encompassing than his father’s self-aggrandizing delusions. Yet, Kim Jong Il knew how to play up to what his father wanted. So in the 1980s, as the designated successor, it is not surprising that he allegedly ordered another decapitation strike against the South Korean leadership.
This time, the plot actually did take out a significant portion of the South Korean President’s staff and government, but the Rangoon bombing failed in what seems to have been its ultimate objective: assassinating South Korean military dictator (and President) Chun Doo-hwan. A successful decapitation of the ROK government would have thrown the country into chaos, and may well have stopped Olympic plans dead in their tracks.
The North Korean side likely had high hopes for the attack, and those plans may well have extended to full-blown regime collapse in the South. We can only speculate as to their ultimate aims, but they likely included disrupting the Olympics and maybe much more.
Ultimately, however, a late scheduling conflict meant that Chun’s plan to lay a wreath at Myanmar’s Martyrs Mausoleum was delayed long enough for the bomb to go off before his arrival.
The North Korean side likely had high hopes for the attack
The bomb killed South Korea’s Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Commerce, Minister of Power Resources, several vice ministers, and the Senior Presidential Secretary for Economic Affairs (the man in charge of government’s economic policy).
The Senior Secretary Kim Jae-ik was a particularly regrettable death, dying at only 44, having implemented or drawn up a number of far-sighted policies that brought renewed and lasting economic growth and prosperity to South Korea.
However, while the bombing was an immediate success from the point of view of the North Koreans, there was a lack of plausible deniability – see this now-declassified report by the CIA at the time.
Unsurprisingly, the North Korean encyclopedia entry on Myanmar makes no mention of the incident or the fact that relations between Burma (Myanmar) and Pyongyang entered a deep freeze for decades. The North Korean side continues to deny any involvement.
ABU NIDAL AND THE RED ARMY FACTION
Although largely unknown outside South Korea, in 1986, there was another attack, this time against civilians, which the North Koreans appeared to have paid for, at least if Stasi documents from East Germany are to be believed.
Abu Nidal, leader of a rogue splinter group from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), had by the 1980s become a terrorist for hire. He had been joined by certain former members of the West German terrorist organization the Red Army Faction (aka Baader-Meinhof Group) in 1977.
One such member disappeared off the face of the earth, Friederike Krabbe, and she resurfaced in 1986, posing as a British citizen, at Seoul’s Kimpo Airport.
Nidal was a man who liked money as well as “revolutionary” terrorism, and Stasi documents indicated he was given $5 million to bomb the airport a week before the start of the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul. The games were to be a dress rehearsal for the Olympics in 1988, so the North must have aimed to inspire terror, but also have deniability: creating a dubious and fearful atmosphere while not being held directly responsible.
Nidal first met Kim Il Sung back in 1972, and had struck up a rapport on the basis of his own experience with urban guerrilla warfare and resisting “flunkeys of the U.S. imperialists” (in his case, Israel).
Stasi documents indicated Nidal was given $5 million to bomb the airport a week before the start of the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul
Documents indicate that Nidal was contracted to carry out the attack as early late 1985, at the very same time as the North was also busy trying to negotiate for some part of the Olympics to be held in Pyongyang.
Whether this was the product of bureaucratic factions pursuing contradictory policies with opposing aims, or just sheer duplicity on the part of the North Korean leadership, is not clear. However, for whatever reason, a time bomb planted in a dustbin inside Kimpo International Airport suddenly exploded at 1512 on 14 September 1986, killing five and wounding 21.
North Korea had been suspected, but its involvement was only confirmed in 2009 by a Japanese journalist at a Swiss newspaper who managed to obtain Stasi reports on the Abu Nidal organization (an organization the Stasi supported). Monthly Chosun subsequently reported on it in March 2009, and its report in Korean contains what is described above.
This is not, however, where the campaign to disrupt the Olympics ended. Indeed, less than one year later, one of the most devastating terrorist attacks in civil aviation history occurred.
TERROR IN THE SKIES
Just over a year after the Kimpo Airport bombing, on November 29, 1987, the Korean Air flight KAL 858 bound for Kimpo exploded over the Andaman Sea while en route from Abu Dhabi to Thailand. 104 passengers and 11 cabin crew were killed.
A CIA report written about the incident several months later seemingly incorrectly identified the incident as being the first of a campaign to stop the Olympics. The confession of one of the bombers indicates that Kim Jong Il yet again had masterminded the attack.
What we know about the incident comes from the bomber who survived, Kim Hyon-hui. The other, Kim Sung Il, who had posed as her father, committed suicide. She failed to do the same, and as a result, ended up in a South Korean prison. Her family was reportedly all sent to Yodok concentration camp too, for her crime of failing to die on time. She was tried, sentenced to death, and then pardoned by then-South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, who believed her to be a victim of North Korean brainwashing.
She then wrote a book about her life and the terrorist attack, and donated the proceeds to the victims’ families of the incident. There was also a film made about the incident entitled “Mayumi” (Kim Hyon-hui’s Japanese alias – she had posed as a Japanese citizen) directed by none other than Shin Sang-ok – the director who had been kidnapped, along with his ex-wife, by Kim Jong Il in 1978.
Who is ultimately responsible, and the reasons for the decision cannot yet be corroborated with North Korean documents, but Ri Kun, then the director general for North American affairs at North Korea’s foreign ministry, was reported to have indirectly admitted that the North had been behind the attack in the 2000s during a meeting of the Six-Party Talks.
This is where the campaign to stop the Seoul Olympics by terror ended, and perhaps the fact that South Korea had just undergone a peaceful democratic transition may have had something to do with this.
The Seoul Olympics opened just over nine months after the attack, and went peacefully.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Flickr user Anders
This is part two of a series on North Korea's efforts to stop the '88 Seoul Olympics. You can read part one here.
The North Korean government was not happy when the "flunkeys of the U.S. imperialists" in capitalist South Korea were awarded the 1988 Summer Olympics in 1981. They had seven years to disrupt the games by whatever means, short of a war they knew they would surely lose.