In the 1980s two incidents severely damaged North Korea’s standing in diplomatic circles. Burma had been a North Korean ally, but its govern-ment admired South Korea’s economic success in the early 1980s and gradually extended diplomatic recognition, a major setback for the North Korean strategy.
In 1983 President Chun Doo Hwan visited Burma (now Myanmar), the first South Korean president to do so. Chun’s itinerary included a visit to Burma’s national cemetery in the capital, Rangoon (Yangôn), on October 9. A bomb hidden in the rafters of a pavilion at the cemetery went off,killing 21 people.
Among the dead were 17 South Koreans, including the foreign minister and three other members of the cabinet. Only a delay in his motorcade had saved the president. The Burmese police later arrested two North Koreans and charged them with the murders. Those arrested were widely suspected of being agents of the North Korean government, and Burma broke off diplomatic ties with North Korea.
On November 19, 1987, Korean Airlines flight 858 disappeared over the Andaman Sea, off the coast of Burma, on its way from Baghdad to Seoul. The flight had originated in Europe and stopped briefly in Iraq, where two passengers had disembarked. Authorities were able to track down the two passengers—an older man and a woman in her early 20s traveling together.
When they were approached for questioning, each attempted suicide. The man succeeded, but the woman survived. Under questioning, she admitted that she and her companion were North Korean spies who had left a bomb on the plane set to detonate once the plane was in the air again. Everyone on the plane—115 people, including the crew—was killed.
Apart from what episodes like these say about the morality of North Korea’s leaders, they obviously call their judgment into question. Why did North Korea commit international crimes that did so little to improve the country’s security? The answer seems to be that North Korea believed its own propaganda.
North Korea had always maintained that the Republic of Korea was a puppet of the United States and retained power solely by the use of force; its people would embrace communism if they were left to their own devices.
Historically, North Korea had interpreted every sign of discontent in South Korea (such as student demonstrations against the Yushin Constitution, the National Security Law, and the KCIA) as a sign of collapse of the South Korean system. Under these premises South Korea needed only a little push to fall apart, and the confusion sowed by actions such as the assassination of a president or the blowing up of an airliner had a serious chance of hastening that outcome.
Instead, they have increased the world’s mistrust of North Korea. The Burma incident, occurring as North Korea was attempting to shape the Non-Aligned Movement to its ends, increased the suspicion of the other members. The murder of the KAL passengers may have been intended to scare people away from participation at the 1988 Seoul Olympics (French 2005, 144).
It did not have this effect, but it occurred as Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev was taking steps to liberalize the Soviet Union and helped to hasten the Soviet Union’s disengagement with North Korea. Counterproductive in the short term, the cumulative effect of these actions has been to enhance North Korea’s reputation as a rogue state, a country that flouts international norms of behavior.