Declassified Files Show Seoul Suspected North Korean Hand in Death of Burmese Student

By Seamus Martov 21 April 2017

A diplomatic dossier recently declassified by the South Korean government indicates that Seoul suspected that the daughter of a Burmese judge who sentenced a north Korean agent to death for his role in an assassination attempt on dictator Chun Do Wan during a state visit to Burma in 1983, was herself killed in revenge by Pyongyang.

Among the 230,000 pages of declassified documents is a December 1986 diplomatic cable from South Korea’s then Ambassador to Geneva, Lee Sang-ok that was sent following a meeting with his Burmese counterpart, U Thein Tun, to discuss the suspicious death of the judge’s daughter while she was studying in Japan in 1985.

“It was a case that we could not get to the bottom of. Hints of North Korean cigarettes were found at the scene and the victim did not show any signs of suicidal tendencies prior to her death,” reads a translated excerpt of the cable published by the Korea Herald.

According to the Korea Herald, the declassified dossier “does not reveal the circumstances” of the student’s death. The suspicious death of the judge’s daughter is far from the only reported case of North Korean agents taking part in illicit activities Japan. Following years of denial, North Korea admitted in 2002 to abducting 13 people from Japan between 1977 to 1983, including a 13-year-old schoolgirl.

It remains unclear however if either the Burmese regime—which was headed by Ne Win at the time—or authorities in Japan, concurred with the assessment from the South Koreans about the possible involvement of North Korea in the death of the judge’s daughter. South Korea’s intelligence services have in recent years been subject to a series of scandals that have damaged their credibility and raised questions about their competence.

A number of South Koreans convicted during the Chun Do Hwan era for their alleged ties with North Korea were later exonerated after it emerged the convictions were based false confessions obtained by torture carried out by members of the intelligence services.

The North Korean agent in question, Kim Jin-soo, was part of a three-man hit squad sent to kill Chun Do Hwan, during a wreath laying ceremony at the mausoleum dedicated to Aung San and his colleagues who were assassinated before independence. A bomb planted on the roof of the building was detonated while the Korean strongman was still en route to the mausoleum. A total of 17 South Korean officials who were waiting for Chun Do Hwan were killed, including the deputy prime minister and foreign and trade ministers. Four Burmese, including three local journalists, were killed as well.

Kim was captured two days after the attack following a failed suicide attempt using a grenade which resulted him losing an eye, both his arms and a leg. According to media accounts of his capture, he did not cooperate with Burmese authorities, only giving his name and rank in the Korean People’s Army. Another agent, Shin Ki-chul, was killed in a gunfight with police while a third, Kang Min-chul, also blew off his hand during his unsuccessful attempt to avoid being captured alive. Kim was executed in 1984 while Kang, was spared and instead sent to Insein prison, where he lived out the rest of his life until reportedly dying of liver cancer in 2007.

A former deputy director of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, Ra Jong-yil, who later wrote a book about Kang, was able, with the help of intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, to arrange for South Korean diplomats to visit Kang in prison. Following Khin Nyunt’s purge in 2004 the visits ended.

Burma broke off diplomatic relations with Pyongyang in the wake of the bloody events at the martyrs mausoleum; ties were rekindled in the late 1990s. Formal diplomatic relations were officially restored in 2007. In November 2008, the then third ranking of member of Burma’s military regime, Shwe Mann, led a high-level Burmese delegation to North Korea where he signed a memorandum of understanding with his North Korean counterparts covering bilateral military ties.