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A Bomb Wreaks Havoc in Rangoon

3 minute read

High-ranking South Koreans are killed during a state visit

South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan was running a few minutes late for the wreath-laying ceremony at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon last Sunday. As they waited for his arrival, high-ranking South Korean officials chatted quietly with their Burmese hosts. Suddenly, an earsplitting explosion cracked through the one-story building, blowing the center of the roof skyward. Within seconds, a scene suffused with the orderliness of diplomatic protocol was transformed into bloody chaos: smoking ruins, survivors screaming hysterically, others racing frantically from the building to seek help. The toll of the blast, apparently caused by a bomb hidden in the mausoleum’s ceiling: 19 killed and 48 injured. The dead included 16 leading South Korean officials, among them Deputy Prime Minister Suh Suk Joon, Foreign Minister Lee Bum Suk and two other Cabinet ministers, as well as three Burmese journalists.

Chun, whose visit to Rangoon was the first stop in an 18-day swing through six Asian and Pacific nations, was three minutes away from the memorial when the bomb, apparently meant for him, went off. His motorcade immediately turned away; soon afterward, the President cut short the journey and flew back to Seoul with his wife. Cabinet members who had not accompanied the President on the tour quickly convened in the South Korean capital, ordered the country’s armed forces and police on special alert, and set up a task force of vice ministers to deal with the crisis. Barely before the smoke from the blast had cleared, South Korean officials charged that the bomb had been planted by North Korean agents, but provided no specific evidence to back their claim. Said Information Minister Lee Jin Hie: “We have come to realize once again the true nature of North Korea as a barbarous international group.” Burmese President U San Yu called the attack a “premeditated and dastardly act of terrorists.” Two Burmese ministers were injured.

The blast plunged South Koreans into another round of mourning barely a month after the Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. As soon as the military alert was announced, soldiers scurried back to their bases from weekend leave and civilians listened intently to their radios.

The Rangoon attack decimated the senior leadership of Chun’s Cabinet. Suh Suk Joon, 45, a U.S.-educated technocrat, was appointed Deputy Prime Minister last July; he also headed South Korea’s economic planning board. Perhaps the biggest loss to Chun was the death of Foreign Minister Lee, 58, who had conceived and planned the foreign tour. A seasoned diplomat who once served as Ambassador to India (1976-80), Lee was given his portfolio in 1982. A cornerstone of his policy was to try to establish ties for South Korea with “nonbelligerent” socialist and Third World nations; thus, Chun’s aborted trip included stops in Sri Lanka and India. Lee had also suggested that a solution to continuing North Korean-South Korean tensions might lie in permanently recognizing the split, but the North remains adamantly opposed and still demands national reunification.

The ill-fated journey last week was also designed to burnish Chun’s image at home; since seizing power after the 1979 assassination of Park Chung Hee and winning the election of 1980, the President has yet to emerge as a truly popular leader. The explosion in Rangoon, no matter who was responsible, was bound to bring South Koreans closer together—if only, once again, in anguish.

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