Japan's Nightmare Scenario

March 24, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Most people worried about the next Korean war have their eyes on the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. But the Japanese are worried that the conflict could be touched off here.

The possible assassination of South Korea's president, Kim Young Sam, during his visit to Japan this week is the nightmare scenario twisting in the background of his coming summit. The killing of the popular president would be the sort of devastating action just short of war that North Korea has resorted to before.

Tokyo is under security alert.

In 1983, 18 South Korean officials, including Deputy Prime Minister So Sok Chun, were killed by a remote-controlled bomb while in Rangoon. Subsequent arrests and announcements by the Burmese government indicated strong links to North Korea.

Four years later, terrorists blew up a Korean Air jet flying from Seoul to Bahrain. One was captured. In court, she testified that she had received direct orders from Kim Jong Il, son and heir-apparent of North Korean ruler Kim Il Sung, to plant the explosives as part of a campaign to disrupt the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

During the four contentious decades since the Korean War concluded with an armistice but no treaty, numerous other assassinations have been attributed to North Korea, including the murder of the South Korean president's mother in 1960.

Within North Korea's vast military of more than a million troops are believed to be a substantial number of special forces trained for such missions.

Japan has its own historical baggage concerning Korean officials. In 1973, South Korean opposition leader Kim Tae Jung was abducted from a Tokyo hotel by South Korean intelligence agents and imprisoned in South Korea. A year later, a Korean living in Japan attempted to assassinate then-Prime Minister Park Chung Hee.

Today, hundreds of thousands of Koreans live in Japan, and if the North has any support outside of China, it is likely to be found in a small subgroup in this loose-knit Korean community.

Included are inflexible adherents of the North Korean regime, some of whom provide a critical financial conduit between Koreans living in Japan and relatives inside the impoverished Stalinist state. It is understood by the senders that most of the money is siphoned off for use by the government, which has few sources of hard currency.

For humanitarian reasons, as well as residual guilt about their brutal colonial occupation of Korea earlier in the century, Japanese officials have been hesitant to disrupt this flow. Consequently, Japan has become a crucial, if unwitting, base for North Korean assistance.

A second concern stems from apologies made by Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa to Korea and other countries for criminal acts during the occupation and World War II.

The apologies are deeply resented by Japan's unrepentant right-wing activists, who have a legacy of staging occasional violent protests -- though Mr. Kim, who has moderated past South Korean demands for reparations in an effort to enhance relations with Japan, would seem an odd target for their wrath.

However, Mr. Kim would be an inviting target for anyone seeking to create chaos in South Korea. He is the country's first freely elected leader since 1961. The popularity of his democratic reforms has been a devastating public relations defeat for North Korea, which has been able in the past to deflect some of the international repugnance for its own leadership by pointing to the often corrupt and unpopular military leaders to the south.

Security is always tight in Tokyo for visits by state leaders, but measures for Mr. Kim's visit appear especially stringent. Copies of his schedule were distributed to the press with the request that it be used but not disseminated.

Newspapers have reported that 16,000 police have been assigned special duties for the occasion. A Foreign Ministry official provided a vastly larger number, saying that in excess of 100,000 officers would be on duty.

More officers have been evident on the already well-patrolled downtown streets, even in comparison with other state visits, and that is expected to increase dramatically with Mr. Kim's arrival.

Security officials decline to provide specific information, but cars have been pulled over for spot checks, and a senior government official just returned from a holiday weekend said that unusual efforts were being made to keep train platforms swept of packages, presumably out of fear of explosives.

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