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Reagan visit to Seoul will help cool South Korean vengeance

By Geoffrey MurraySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 1983


President Reagan's visit to South Korea next month has now become of paramount importance in reassuring and restraining this tense frustrated nation. In the aftermath of an Oct. 9 explosion in Rangoon, Burma - which South Korea blames on the communist North - that killed 17 visiting Koreans, including five of the most important officials in President Chun Doo Hwan's government, Mr. Reagan has to reinforce American policy that, no matter what the provocation short of invasion, Seoul must continue to turn the other cheek.

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This is the price South Korea has to pay in lost pride in order to be assured of full American support should North Korean repeat its 1950 military sortie into the south.

And there are signs that for the South this lack of ability to strike back is building up a dangerous head of steam in some sectors.

The Seoul government is perfectly satisfied from all the evidence that the bomb explosion was triggered with aremote control devise by a North Korean suicide squad, two members of which allegedly have been killed and a third captured so far by Burmese security authorities.

The problem is to get the rest of the world to accept this claim and to act on it - condemning and applying sanctions against the North - in a way that will assuage frustrated public opinion and head off any build up of ''march north'' pressures on the Chun government.

South Koreans note, for example, just how weak, short-lived or nonexistant were the actions taken by the rest of the world against the Soviet Union for shooting down a Korean airliner Sept. 1, when it strayed into Soviet airspace, killing 269 people. So they don't feel too encouraged this time.

Commented one Western diplomat: ''The Koreans have gone through a bad few weeks in which they feel they have been shown as a small country that can be pushed around with impunity. . . . They don't like it, and the amazing thing is just how much they have been prepared to swallow.

''The obvious question, though, is: just how much more can they take without bursting and striking back?''

Referring to the airliner incident, one Western source observed: ''There was no target against which the public could vent its anger. There was no Russian Embassy they could throw stones at, and burning a few Russian flags or effigies is not very satisfying emotionally.

''The same thing has happened over the Rangoon bombing. There isn't any tangible target for them to let off steam.''

According to an American Embassy official: ''There is one important difference, however. They couldn't do much against the Russians, but it is a different case with North Korea. . . . That's a level more in keeping with their longstanding major preoccupation and their strength.''

Led by some of the media, there have been loud demands for revenge and a feeling of ''let's get at them (the North).''

Calling in his top commanders to discuss ways to establish a stronger defense posture against any northern threat, Defense Minister Yoon Sung Min said the North was on a semi-war footing and would ''have to bear all responsibilites for the worse situation that might stem from such provocations (as the Rangoon bombing). There are limits to our patience.''

Also meeting his top military commanders, President Chun - who only escaped the bombing by being behind his official schedule - described the incident as a virtual declaration of war by North Korea.

Had he been killed, Chun claimed, northern troops would immediately have launched a major attack across the demilitarized zone.

The President said the only answer was to build up the South's ability to overpower the North so that the ''warmongers'' in Pyongyang would ''cave in of themselves.''

Yet meeting visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe last Thursday, Chun was quoted as giving a reassurance he would not retaliate militarily but would deal with the Rangoon bombing diplomatically.

But there were unconfirmed Japanese reports that Chun also told Abe he was ''suppressing disquieting moves among the armed forces, particularly among young officers,'' in connection with ways to react to the bomb incident.