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North Korea's 'erased' killer

Choe Sang-hun 

He was one of North Korea's deadliest secret agents.

On October 9, 1983, Kang Min-chul and two other North Korean agents bombed the Martyrs' Museum in Rangoon, Burma, in a plot to kill the South Korean president, who was to have laid a wreath there. The bomb missed its mark - the president's car had been delayed - but 17 South Koreans, including four cabinet ministers, were killed.

Kang was consigned to oblivion. North Korea denied any connection with the attack. In South Korea, where the bombing was declared a North Korean atrocity, few cared to remember that a North Korean was languishing in a Burmese prison for it. In 2008, Kang died at 53. During 25 years in prison, he received not a single visitor from his homeland.

Today, 30 years after the bombing, his story has been resurrected in an unlikely quarter: Ra Jong-yil, a former deputy director of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, has written a book about Kang called Forgotten Terrorist.

Though the author is quick to label Kang an "atrocious criminal", his book is a requiem for people he calls "the erased" - the thousands of young men from both Koreas who were trained as secret fighters of the Cold War. It excoriates political leaders on both sides who denied the men's existence after their missions went wrong, never informing their families or the public of their fate.

For decades after the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953, the two Koreas pursued a covert war, slipping agents across the border as spies or assassins. From time to time, South Koreans caught glimpses of Northern infiltrators. In 1996, a North Korean submarine ran aground on the South's eastern coast, spilling out 26 crewmen and agents. Eleven were later found dead in a circle on a mountaintop, each with a bullet hole in the head. In 1998, another North Korean submarine was stranded off the same coast. When South Korean officials opened its hatch, they found nine men with bullet wounds in their heads or chests. South Korean officials said many of the North Koreans killed themselves rather than be caught by the South Korean authorities, and spare their loved ones from being labelled "families of traitors". The nature of some men's wounds suggested that they were executed.

Mr Ra based his book on court records from Kang's trial, and interviews with former inmates and wardens who had befriended Kang in Insein Prison near Yangon, as Rangoon is now known. Kang's main target in the bombing was South Korea's president, Chun Doo-hwan. But the Burmese foreign minister, U Chit Hlaing, arrived a few minutes late to escort Mr Chun from his guesthouse. Mr Chun's car was still a mile away when the remote-controlled bombs went off. After watching the blast from a distance, Kang and the two other agents, Kim Jin-su and Shin Ki-chul, ran to the Yangon River, where a speedboat was supposed to take them to a North Korean freighter.

The boat was not there, according to the book. The men split up and walked or swam down the river, not knowing that the freighter was not there either. It had been denied entry into Yangon Harbor. The Burmese police and troops caught up with them. Shin was killed in a gunfight.

Both Kim and Kang were arrested with severe wounds after their grenades exploded in their hands. Mr Ra said he believed the grenades had been modified by North Korean spymasters so that they would explode immediately and kill the agents to remove any evidence of the North's involvement.

Kim, who lost an arm and an eye, refused to answer questions and was executed. Kang, who also lost an arm, confessed and received a suspended death sentence. In prison, Kang learned the Burmese language and how to climb the mango trees in the prison yard with one arm, Mr Ra's book said. Fellow inmates remembered him worrying about what might have happened to his mother and sister in North Korea because of his confession. He converted to Christianity and an inmate baptised him as "Matthew".

Mr Ra came upon Kang's case by chance. He had read an intelligence brief on Kang while perusing files for an official visit to Yangon in 1998. It said Kang had received no visitors during his 15 years in custody and had fallen into a state of acute despair. Mr Ra was touched by the case. He persuaded General Khin Nyunt, who was intelligence chief and later prime minister of the country now known as Myanmar, to allow South Korean diplomats to call on Kang, bringing him food and news about Korea. Kang told them and fellow inmates that, if freed, he hoped to go to South Korea.

The diplomats' visits ended when General Khin Nyunt was deposed as prime minister in 2004. Mr Ra appealed to the South Korean government to negotiate for Kang's release. But Seoul hesitated to do anything that might disrupt its overtures to Pyongyang.

Kang lived out his last days in despondence. He was afraid for his life, especially after North Korean diplomats returned to Yangon in 2007, when relations that had been severed over the bombing were restored. He feared his food might be poisoned. He told wardens and fellow inmates that he had no country to go to even if he was freed. He developed liver cancer and died on May 18, 2008. Mr Ra has since asked Myanmar officials what happened to Kang's remains. "They didn't know," he said. "They said I was the first and only one to ask."

©2013 The New York Times News Service

Ra Jong-yil
Publisher not mentioned

First Published: Sun, December 01 2013. 21:37 IST