The Interrogation of Kim Hyun Hee

On November 29, 1987 … a powerful bomb exploded on a Korean Air Lines (KAL) jetliner over the Andaman Sea on its way from Abu Dhabi to Seoul. All 115 passengers and crewmembers were killed….

Moving swiftly after news of the plane’s disappearance, the Bahrain Intelligence Service had determined that the passport of Mayumi Hachiya, a 25-Year-old Japanese woman traveling with her father and registered on the first leg of KAL 858 from Baghdad to Abu Dhabi, was a fake. On November 31 at the airport in Bahrain, where the two had flown in an attempt to get home from Abu Dhabi, the suspicious pair was apprehended by Bahraini police as they were about to board a flight for Rome. The elderly man, who turned out to be a veteran North Korean secret agent, bit into a cyanide-laced cigarette and died instantly. Bahrain Police Chief Ian Henderson, however, grabbed for a similarly poisoned cigarette on the lips of the young woman. She hesitated for a moment, and Henderson flicked the cigarette out of her mouth. The young woman survived. To this day, Henderson, an Englishman by birth, shows curious visitors the scar on his finger where the young woman bit him when he reached for the “cigarette.”

At first, with her interrogators the young woman stuck steadfastly to her cover story that she was a Chinese orphan who had grown up in Japan and who had had nothing to do with the bombing. But her actions belied her story. In one violent outburst in Bahrain, enraged by a line of questioning about her sexual past, she felled a female interpreter with a palm-heel strike to the nose, delivered a hammer-fist punch to the groin of Henderson, and then grabbed for his pistol. She was about to shoot herself with the pistol when she was jolted by an electric stun gun. Her rage prompted Henderson to send her to Seoul. “Get her out of here. She belongs to the South Koreans now,” Henderson said.

The man who took Kim Hyun Hee–her real name–back to Seoul was Vice Foreign Minister Park Soo Kil. Park flew to Bahrain shortly after the KAL 858 explosion with three agents from the Agency for National Security Planning, also known as the KCIA, to demonstrate to the Bahrain authorities that Kim was indeed a North Korean agent. Chief among the evidence was an analysis of the cyanide-laced cigarettes, which showed them to be the same type used by North Korean agents apprehended in South Korea. Bahrain was getting pressure from unfriendly countries such as Syria to send her to China. Park told Bahrain government officials that the longer the suspected terrorist stayed in their country, the more at risk Bahrain would be to a rescue attempt by North Korea that could leave more people dead, likely Bahrainis. Finally, after Kim’s attack, the Bahrain government let her return with him.

In Seoul, under twenty-four-hour observation and subject to in-depth questioning to which she replied in either Japanese or Chinese, Kim broke and confessed. On the eighth day of her interrogation, she collapsed upon the breast of a woman interrogator and said in Korean, “Forgive me. I am sorry. I will tell you everything.” The interrogation had been conducted masterfully by the South Koreans. They had observed the way she expertly made her bed every morning as if she had had prolonged military training, uncovered discrepancies in her story, like her incorrect use of southern Chinese words to describe life in northern China, and cajoled her by taking her on a tour of Seoul.

She admitted to helping place a radio time bomb with liquid explosive in the overhead luggage rack of KAL 858 while on the Baghdad to Abu Dhabi leg and then deplaning with her fellow agent. Kim revealed that the two North Koreans had been traveling overseas, disguised as father and daughter, for more than three years in preparation for the operation. Interestingly, the South Koreans used the fact that Kim had said she was originally from China to get back at the North Koreans. They communicated to Peking through the New China News Agency in Hong Kong that “your North Korean friends have put this monkey on your back.” The Chinese were upset–and probably embarrassed….

For the bombing of KAL 858, the U.S. put North Korea on its list of countries engaged in terrorism and started to assist South Korea in security arrangements for the upcoming [1988] Olympics. In a meeting with Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze in March 1988, President Reagan received assurances that there would be no North Korean terrorist attacks at the Olympics.

SOURCE: China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia, by James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 283-284, 286-287

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