With South Korea hosting the Winter Olympics this year, security against North Korean provocations has been a topic of major concern. This concern has been heightened further this year due to the Kim Jong-un regime’s regular nuclear and missile tests that have brought strong condemnation from the United States and the international community. North Korea’s long history of provocative behavior has only furthered concerns they could attempt something during the games and thus why officials have been so eager to have North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics. With this all in mind I think it is a good time to look back on arguably North Korea’s most provocative act, when on November 29, 1987 they bombed Korean Air Flight 858 in an attempt to scare people from attending the 1988 Olympic Games hosted in Seoul.
[Stars & Stripes, December 1, 1987]
On November 29, 1987 Korean Air Flight 858 (KAL 858) left Baghdad, Iraq enroute to Kimpo International Airport in Seoul with two stops in Abu Dhabi, UAE and Bangkok, Thailand. The plane was carrying 95 passengers and a crew of 20 personnel. Everyone on the plane except for an Indian and Lebanese nationals were South Korean citizens. KAL 858 was a Boeing 707 that was bought in 1971 to be the private aircraft for South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Just that fact alone should have made officials concerned it could one day be a target of a North Korean terrorist attack.
[Stars & Stripes, December 1, 1987]
As the plane was passing over the Andaman Sea it lost contact with Burmese air traffic authorities who had been monitoring the plane’s flight. It was feared that the plane had crashed either into the sea or a Burmese jungle. A search by Thai authorities would later spot wreckage six miles across the Thai border in Burma. This report ended up being false and instead it was determined the plane crashed into the Andaman Sea. The crash site was never found, but some debris did wash up on Burma’s shoreline. No human remains were ever found.
[Stars & Stripes, January 19, 1988]
Terrorism by North Korean agents was immediately suspected as a possible cause of the crash. Coincidentally Burma had been the location of another major terrorism attack four years earlier when North Korea had tried to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during a state visit. The assassins had narrowly missed killing President Chun, but 21 other people died in the bombing. Now 115 more people were now dead in a suspected North Korean terrorism attack in the skies near Burma.
As authorities looked at who was on the plane they noticed that two passengers had exited the plane during a brief stop in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates before the plane continued on to Seoul. The their passports described them as Japanese nationals, Shinichi Hachiya age 69 and his daughter Mayuma Hachiya age 27. After deplaning in Abu Dhabi the couple had tried to board a plane to Amman, Jordan. However, there were issues with their travel visas which forced them to change their flight and instead fly to Rome via Bahrain.
Mayuma Hachiya’s fake Japanese passport.
While waiting for their flight to Rome in Bahrain the investigation over the bombing of KAL 858 had caught up to them. Authorities in Bahrain were alerted by the Japanese embassy to inspect their passports which were then identified as fakes. As the couple saw the Bahrain and Japanese authorities coming to take them into custody, they both took out cigarettes and bit down on the filters that were laced with cyanide. They both fell to the floor unconscious.
Even if we go to Japan, it will be nothing but suffering. Since we will eventually die, anyway, let’s bite an ampule (poison capsule).”
This was what Kim Sun-il, the operative pretending to be a Japanese tourist and father of fellow operative Kim Hyon-hui, said to her in the airport of the Middle East country Bahrain on the 1st of December 1987. They were in the waiting room at the airport after they had been stopped by a Japanese consular official, who had said, “You will be questioned in Japan.” [Japan Forward]
The quick reaction of authorities at the airport was able to save the life of the young woman, but the older man died.
[Stars & Stripes, December 3, 1987]
As authorities waited for the detained young woman to regain consciousness, they began to investigate whether the couple were part of the Chosen Soren which is a pro-North Korean group in Japan. They also investigated whether they were members of the terrorist group, the Japanese Red Army that had sought refuge in North Korea. They did find out that the passport for the deceased male was a case of stolen identity from a man also named Shinichi Hachiya in Tokyo who claimed a mysterious man he met named Akira Miyamoto likely used his personal stamp to make a passport in Hichiya’s name back in 1983.
[Stars & Stripes, December 3, 1987]
However, the dead man’s fingerprints ended up not matching the fingerprints of the mysterious Miyamoto. It is likely that Miyamoto was a North Korean agent operating in the Japan that was tasked with acquiring false identities for other operatives.
[Stars & Stripes, December 6, 1987]
As authorities tried to determine who the deceased male was, they also tried to question the female suspect they were able to revive who was kept at a military hospital in Bahrain. During her detention in Bahrain she initially refused to talk. On December 15th, one day before the ROK Presidential election, she was transferred to South Korea where she was interrogated for eight days. During this time she claimed she was an ethnic Chinese who grew up in Japan. Her poor Japanese and the fact she spoke Cantonese instead of Mandarin made interrogators doubt her claims.
In this Dec. 15, 1987, file photo, North Korean spy Kim Hyon-hui, centre, with her mouth taped is taken out from a plane upon her arrival in Seoul, South Korea, from Bahrain, after she bombed a Korean Air jetliner. (AP Photo/Kim Chon-kil, File)
The interrogators then decided to challenge Kim Hyon-hui’s ideological indoctrination by sending her on a grand tour of Seoul. They drove her around the city, let her watch the news, and television dramas. This challenging of her ideological indoctrination is what made her finally decide to cooperate with the interrogators. She realized that the years of indoctrination she had been taught in North Korea about the Republic of Korea was all based on lies. Still the decision to confess did not come easy because of the retaliation that would likely happen to her family back in North Korea:
Kim Hyon-hui – 1988
“When I confessed, I did so reluctantly. I thought my family in North Korea would be in danger; it was a big decision to confess. But I began to realise it would be the right thing to do for the victims, for them to be able to understand the truth.” [BBC]
She told investigators that at a young age she was chosen to become a North Korean agent due to her favorable family background and pretty looks that were noticed during a short career as a actress. She entered the North Korean intelligence academy at age 19 and trained as an operative for nearly 8 years before executing the KAL 858 mission.
She described to interrogators how the mission to bomb KAL 858 was executed. The mission began on November 12, 1987 when her and a fellow agent identified as Kim Seung-il (no relation) traveled via airplane from Pyongyang to Moscow. From Moscow they then flew to Budapest, Hungary where they stayed with a North Korean agent for six days. The two operatives were driven by the secret agent from Hungary to Austria. They crossed into Austria using two fake Japanese passports given to them by the secret agent.
Debris found on the shores of Burma from KAL 858.
In Austria they posed as Japanese father and daughter tourists visiting Vienna. From Vienna they booked a flight to Belgrade, Yugoslavia where they were met by two North Korean secret agents. On November 27, 1987 the two agents game them a time bomb with C-4 explosives built inside of a Panasonic transistor radio. They were also given a liquid explosive to put next to the bomb disguised as a liquor bottle to strengthen the explosion. With the bomb in hand the pair then flew from Belgrade to Baghdad to execute their mission.
Kim said that there mission was almost thwarted when security screeners at Baghdad took the batteries out of the radio before boarding the plane. She was able to successfully convince the screeners to allow her to keep the batteries which allowed her to once again power the bomb’s nine hour timer. While flying between Baghdad and Abu Dhabi they placed the bomb in a duty free shopping bag in an overhead bin above seats 7B and 7C before exiting the flight at Abu Dhabi at 02:40 AM in the morning on November 29, 1987. Nine hours later the plane would explode of the Andaman Sea.
Example of the transistor radio bomb used to destroy KAL 858 [Aviation Security International]
There was clearly significant planning to successfully execute the bombing, but probably the most surprising thing about this terrorist attack was how little planning was put into the escape plan:
Things continued to unfold in a way that we had not anticipated. Because our transit point, Baghdad, had been designated a “war zone,” agent Kim Sun-il had sought a change, but it was rejected on the grounds that it was “something that has been ratified.” I realized that this was an instruction from Kim Jong-il, who supervised the covert operations unit.
After the crime, we should have been able to flee to Jordan using another air ticket, but we were caught by an unanticipated check and had no choice other than to go to Bahrain using tickets that had been prepared as camouflage. Everything was planning on paper. We did not have funds, and there had been no prior field survey. [Japan Forward]
The North Koreans have since definitely learned from this mistake because after the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia in 2017, the operatives responsible made a quick and flawless exit out of Malaysia back to North Korea.
With the truth exposed by Kim Hyon-hui, ROK authorities wanted her to go public with a confession. In January 1988 Kim Hyon-hui went on national television and confessed to the world that she was a North Korean agent responsible for killing 115 people. She said told the audience “It is natural that I should be punished and killed a hundred times for my sin.” She also dropped the bombshell that Kim Jong-il, the son and heir to North Korean leader Kim Il-sung had personally ordered the attack. She also confirmed that the attack was to dissuade countries from attending the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul as well as disrupt the upcoming ROK Presidential election.
If the Kim regime thought that the bombing of the airliner would dissuade participation in the 1988 Olympic Games; their thinking ended up being completely wrong. The North Koreans had tried to lead a communist block that would not attend the games. After the bombing the communist block broke when Czechoslovakia and Vietnam each said they would attend the games. The Soviet Union and China attended as well. This was a clear repudiation of the terrorist tactic employed by the Kim regime.
[Stars & Stripes, January 17, 1988]
After a confession that a foreign government had blown up a civilian airliner it would seem natural that the ROK government would want to respond militarily like the United States did in 1986 in response to Libyan terrorist attack in Germany. However, due to the risk of creating a larger war on the peninsula and ruining the upcoming Olympic Games, the ROK government simply strengthened border security and focused on further diplomatic isolation of the Kim regime.
The Trial and Pardon
Due to Kim’s cooperation with the ROK authorities it was widely expected before her trial that she would be granted amnesty by the ROK President. This is because the ROK government looked at her “as valuable living evidence” of the crime committed by the Kim regime against innocent civilians.
[Stars & Stripes, January 25, 1988]
However, the ROK President was not going to grant her a pardon until the legal process was completed. The initial court ruling sentenced her to death for the murder of 115 people on KAL 858. Kim ended up appealing the sentence which ultimately made its way to the ROK Supreme Court which in March 1990 upheld the death penalty.
[Stars & Stripes, July 23, 1989]
The following month on April 12, 1990 the new ROK President, Roh Tae-woo pardoned Kim Hyon-hui for the crime.
[Stars & Stripes, April 14, 1990]
After Kim confessed and exposed the details of the Kim regime’s responsibility for a major terrorist attack they decided to blame the ROK for the attack instead. The North Koreans claimed that the bombing was the work of the South Korean government in an effort to win the ROK Presidential election held in December. The Roh Tae-woo administration denounced North Korea’s claims as a “brazen faced campaign” to avoid responsibility for the terrorist attack.
[Stars & Stripes, February 14, 1988]
What is most interesting about North Korea’s claims is that during the administration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) many of his leftist supporters actually believed this claim. The Roh government even opened an investigation to determine if it was true. To lead the investigation President Roh chose his spiritual advisor Father Song Ki-in and staffed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with leftists:
Father Song was also a strong advocate for the withdrawal of US troops in South Korea:
Father Song also said, South and North Korea should join hands in encouraging the U.S. troops to withdraw. The prosperity of the nation can only be guaranteed when Seoul and Pyongyang closely unite, without letting the U.S. know about it. Regarding the North Korea nuclear issue, he commented, It will be difficult for North Korea to throw bombs toward this nation. Prior to that, in an interview with SBS Radio in May 2003, he claimed that the 38th Parallel was divided by the Americans. [Donga Ilbo – Nov. 26, 2005]
When the North Koreans sunk the ROK naval vessel Cheonan in 2010 that killed 46 sailors, South Korean leftists once again rallied to defend North Korea and blame the ROK government for the sinking of the ship. Many westerners at the time found it hard to believe that anyone in South Korea would blame their own government for the attack. However, this is standard practice for ROK leftists that goes all the way back to the KAL 858 bombing in 1987. If they can blame the ROK government for KAL 858 despite all the evidence to the contrary and even having a surviving witness, it easy to understand why they would blame the Cheonan sinking on them as well.
Considering how Kim Hyon-hui was able to avoid serious punishment for murdering 115 people, it is easy to understand why someone would be upset about this. However, when she decided to cooperate she sentenced her own family to death in a North Korean labor camp:
During our hour-long meeting, there is only one moment when her emotions break through. It is right at the end, when I ask her about her family in North Korea. With tears welling up in her eyes, she shakes her head.
“I don’t know what happened to them,” she says. “I have heard that they were seen being taken away from Pyongyang to a labour camp.” [BBC]
Just that fact alone proves she did not get off light for her crime. I believe it is also very clear she carries enormous guilt about her role in what happened. She was quoted as saying, “I don’t think I have been truly pardoned. How can I compensate for the sufferings of the bereaved families?” Additionally she has to have a security detail at all times due to the fact the Kim regime views her as a target for retaliation.
[Stars & Stripes, June 22, 1990]
In 1993 she wrote a book titled, The Tears of My Soul that explained the indoctrination and training she went through before committing the terrorist bombing. All the proceeds from the book went towards the families of the victims of KAL 858.
Due to being surrounded by a security detail at all times it is probably no surprise that Kim Hyon-hui in 1997 ended up marrying a ROK intelligence agent. She soon became a mother to two children.
A decade after the book’s release Kim appeared in the media spotlight again when someone in the Roh Moo-hyun administration leaked her secret address in Seoul to the media. This forced her into hiding into a provincial area of the country where she regularly moved due to the fear North Korean operatives would hunt her down. The disclosure also put her under severe emotional and financial stress since she received no help from the ROK government. The stress wasn’t relieved until the conservative President Lee Myung-bak took power in 2009.
In recent years Kim Hyon-hui has been active in helping the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. She has made multiple trips to Japan in effort to disclose as much information as possible that she knew about the missing Japanese citizens from her time training as an intelligence operative.
Kim Hyon-hui meets with families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. [Japan Forward]
She has also made various statements about what she thinks about the state of the current Kim regime in North Korea. Here is a statement she recently made that is in line with what I and others have been saying that North Korea’s nuclear program is intended to negotiate a withdrawal of US troops
from South Korea in effort to bring about unification under North Korean terms
In the view of Kim, North Korea “in economic terms, cannot carry on for long. Within five years we will see changes.” This is because the United States has once again designated North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism, and China, which had been providing backing for the North Korean regime, is now also participating in UN sanctions.
In her view, Chairman Kim’s ultimate goal with his missile and nuclear weapons development is “to negotiate a peace treaty with the US that leads to the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, followed by the unification of Korea under a socialist system.” [Japan Forward]
She was also supportive of the Trump administration putting North Korea back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List:
Kim Hyon-hui: North Korea has always been a terrorist nation. Following the North’s bombing of Korean Airlines (KAL) Flight 858 in 1987, the country was designated a state sponsor of terrorism the next year by the (U.S. President George H.W.) Bush administration, but 20 years later, in 2008, it was taken off from the U.S. watch list. It was, from my view, a major mistake (on the part of the U.S.) to do so without receiving a formal apology from the North Korean regime for the bombing. And for that reason, North Korea still would not admit it and remains unapologetic, blatantly claiming to date that the bombing was the South’s self-fabricated plot and continuing its provocative actions — acts of terrorism and threats of nuclear devastation.
It is thus a good thing to return North Korea to the terrorism state sponsor list, which I believe would be effective, especially at this time when the international community has become more inclined to pressure the regime. [Voice of America]
Here is one final statement from Kim Hyon-hui about her personal observations about South Koreans:
My personal view is that South Korea is a prosperous country, where people can lead a good life, but their sense of national security is weak even in the face of North Korea’s continued nuclear threats. I think they are very carefree. The young generations in South Korea don’t know about the KAL bombing incident because it’s been 30 years since it took place and it is not being taught at school. I think as much as I like democracy, there are also inefficient sides to it. [Voice of America]
As the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang draws near everyone should remember the horrible 1987 bombing of KAL flight 858 that the North Koreans have never been held accountable for. Instead South Korea and the world community are begging the North Korean government to participate in the Winter Olympics. I believe the ROK and the world community should instead hold the Kim regime accountable for this terrorist bombing that cost the lives of 115 people simply to dissuade people from attending the 1988 Olympics in Seoul
Holding North Korea accountable for this terrorist attack should begin by banning them from future Olympic Games. If Apartheid South Africa was banned from the Olympics because of their discriminatory policies, than why is North Korea with its far worse human rights record allowed in the Olympics? If North Korea does participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, South Koreans should swarm the Olympic venues to protest the 1987 bombing and the other North Korean atrocities committed against their country. Instead what we will likely see is no protests because the so called human rights groups in South Korea will be too busy trotting out another comfort woman statue to protest Japanese atrocities from over 80 years ago instead of confronting the evil regime they are inviting into their own backyard while the world is watching.