Bomb’s scars still fresh 30 years after terror plot

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Bomb’s scars still fresh 30 years after terror plot

At 10:29 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1983, a terrorist bomb exploded at Aung San’s mausoleum in Myanmar. Although President Chun Doo Hwan escaped the assassination attempt because he arrived a few minutes late to the ceremony, the attack claimed the lives of 21 South Korean government officials. The list of those murdered includes Ham Byeong-chun, the president’s chief of staff; Seo Seok-jun, the deputy prime minister; Lee Beom-seok, the minister of foreign affairs; and Kim Dong-hwi, the minister of commerce. The Myanmar government, after an investigation, reported to the United Nations that the attack had been planned and executed by North Korea.

Three decades later, the children of those killed, who were in their teens and 20s, have grown to become part of the generation that is a pillar of Korean society. But the public’s memory has faded in the intervening years. The trauma of the attack is still vivid for the surviving family members, but many of today’s teenagers and people in their 20s have no clear concept of the Aung San terror.

Kwon Chul-hyun is the chairman of the Sejong Foundation, formerly known as the Ilhae Foundation, which was created through donations from politicians and business leaders to aid the victims’ families. He described the lives of those family members over the past 30 years in an interview on Tuesday. The work of the Sejong Foundation has included scholarships for the victims’ children, and it is planning a monument in Myanmar.

The chairman said in many of cases, the bereaved families were traumatized by the intense media attention that followed the bombing.

“The majority of people keep a low profile, turning to religion,” he said. “The way to commemorate the dead varies between generations. The widows still have a hard time overcoming their sorrow, but their children have sublimated the pain through relationships with members of other victims’ families.”

Some have opted to devote their lives to the study of North Korean issues. One such person is Ham Jae-bong, Ham Byeong-chun’s first son and the president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. He was 25 at the time of the bombing and was studying in the United States. He overcame the shock of his father’s death and earned a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. After becoming a professor of politics and diplomacy at Yonsei University in Seoul, he became head of the Research Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Southern California. Now at the Asan Institute, he studies South Korea’s external policies, with a major focus on North Korean issues.
Lee Soon-ja, an honorary professor at Sookmyung Women’s University, is another example. The wife of Kim Jae-ik, then the senior presidential secretary for economics, donated 2 billion won ($1.9 million) of her savings to Seoul National University, Kim’s alma mater. The school created a scholarship fund for students from underdeveloped countries, commemorating Kim’s devotion to Korea’s economic growth during the 1970s and 1980s.

Her first son, Kim Han-hoe, was an engineering academic for a majority of his life after emigrating to the United States. But his continuing interest in South Korean prisoners of war detained in the North inspired him to attend law school and become a lawyer. He played a key role in bringing the issue to the International Criminal Court.

The destiny of the North Korean agents who committed the terror act was grim. One was shot to death after being spotted the day after the attack, while another was hanged in a Myanmar prison. While serving a 25-year term in prison in Myanmar after confessing to his crime, the third died of liver disease in May 2008. North Korea, denying having masterminding the attack, refused to allow him to be repatriated.

Whether it will be possible to erect a monument on the 30th anniversary of the Aung San terror by the year end is unclear. An official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says a memorandum of understanding with the Myanmar government to proceed with construction is being delayed.

“We intend to reach an agreement as soon as possible, but it will take some time, given the monument will require some ground work,” he said.

The Sejong Foundation’s monument committee initially planned to complete and dedicate the monument on Oct. 9, exactly 30 years after the attack. At a recent meeting, they tentatively decided to unveil the memorial on Dec. 12.

The Myanmar government is having a hard time negotiating the memorandum of understanding because of friction with the Turkish government over the site of the monument. Turkey demands that Myanmar build a grave site for 1,500 Turkish soldiers who were forcibly brought to Myanmar from Egypt during World War I and died there. But many citizens of Myanmar, where 90 percent of population is Buddhist, oppose the idea of a graveyard for Muslim people.


BY JEONG WON-YEOB [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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