The Buzz

North Korea Blew Up an Airliner the Last Time the Olympics Came to Korea

While Kim recovers over several days, a Bahraini and Japanese agent repeatedly question Kim. She sticks to a cover story that she is an orphan from northern China raised in Japan by her father. But the two interrogators repeatedly insinuate that she was in a sexual relationship with Seung-il until Hyon Hui loses her temper. In an unexpected display of her martial arts training, she breaks her Japanese interrogator’s nose, then disables the Bahraini investigator with a punch to the groin and snatches his pistol, intending to kill herself. But then she is caught in a headlock by a guard and finally zapped with a stun gun.

This incident, and the fact that poisoned cigarettes had been found in the past on North Korean agents captured by South Korea, lead to her being flown to South Korea for interrogation. There is a media frenzy as footage is released of her being hustled off a plane in Seoul International Airport with her bobbed hair and checkered black and white coat, her mouth taped to prevent self-harm.

The South Korean interrogators begin to repeatedly press her in Chinese, Japanese and Korean to confess. By Kim’s own account, it is a tour of the bustling streets of Seoul on the seventh day of interrogation that finally shatters her resolve as she realizes it is not the impoverished, repressive wasteland depicted by North Korean propaganda.

The following day she confesses the truth. She and her colleague had been dispatched to blow up Flight 858 in a bid to sow chaos ahead of the first democratic election in South Korea—and to discourage attendance of the Seoul Olympics. She claims she was told these were direct orders from Kim Jong Il, then the son of the current ruler of North Korea.

Pyongyang is outraged, outraged to be accused of perpetrating the airline bombing. North Korea maintains even today that Kim Hyon Hui and her accomplice were agents of South Korea, that the South Koreans have bombed themselves. (Pro tip: the “they bombed themselves” defense is almost never true.)

The Soviet Union echoes the denial, though Beijing, perhaps more intimately familiar with Pyongyang’s tendencies, declines to offer comment. But even columnists in American newspapers are initially skeptical, wondering whether Seoul had extracted the confession through torture. Nonetheless, the incident leads the United States to add North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a status it will hold for two decades.

Kim is tried and sentenced to death in March, though she is then pardoned by President Roe Tae-woo, who describes her as a “victim” of brainwashing. The Seoul Olympics proceed successfully. In addition to highlighting to South Korea’s modernization and transition to democracy, they are the last in which the Soviet Union participate.

In 1990, the film Mayumi depicts Kim’s story on the big screen. A year later, Hyon-hui herself publishes her own account, Tears of My Soul, which narrates her thoughts and emotions as she plants the bomb on Flight 858 and later is interrogated in Bahrain and South Korea. She donates all the royalties to the victims of the bombing. The former agent maintains she deserved execution, and is consumed by guilt for her role in the murder of the 115 men and women onboard Flight 858.

Kim also expresses concern for the fate of Taguchi, her Japanese language instructor, and later visits Japan to meet with her family and others who have had loved ones snatched away by Pyongyang. (North Korea admitted to kidnapping Yaeko Taguchi but claims she died in 1986, though Japanese sources maintain she may still be alive.) Kim eventually marries one of the bodyguards assigned to protect her, and remains a fierce critic of the government that trained her to become a killer.

Kim Hyon-Hui’s story parallels that of many other North Korean agents captured by South Korea after bloody incidents, such as Lee Kwang-Soo, survivor of a grounded North Korean spy submarine, and Kim Shin-Jo, one of two commandos to survive an assault on the presidential Blue House in 1968.

Of course, North Korea is not the only state to destroy an airliner full of civilians the 1980s. In 1988, a U.S. cruiser shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290, while Soviet fighters earlier shot down two South Korean airliners, on the second occasion killing 269. These incidents killed more people and reflect poorly on both countries, but were not intentional acts of terrorism.

However, the bombing of Flight 858 more closely resembles the Lockerbie bombing perpetrated by Libyan agents in 1988. Both were deliberate and spiteful state-led projects to massacre civilians in pursuance of political objectives. It still sounds absurd to state the fact plainly: North Korea blew up an airliner to drive down attendance at an athletic event.