“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.”
Kim Hyon-hui was one of the two terrorists who downed Korean Air Flight 858 30 years ago. In an interview with Norio Sakurai, the correspondent of the Sankei Shimbun Seoul bureau, she shared her thoughts and experiences as a North Korean terrorist who was supposed to die after the terror operation. Here is what she said.
I knew that my mission had been “a success.” It was only a matter of time before our covert operation was uncovered. When I thought that my life of less than 26 years would come to an end, I could not help thinking of the sad face of my mother. I would not even be permitted to live until I was arrested.
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.
With our retreat route cut off, we bit cigarettes containing poison at the airport, but I did not die and was taken to [South] Korea. I insisted that I was Japanese, but discrepancies in my story were all too obvious. More than anything else, there’s freedom in Korea. We have elections up, including the president.
The North Korean line about “the oppressed South Koreans” was rebutted as “nothing but lies.” The “foundation of my faith” in my motherland started to crack and ultimately broke down.
I was worried that my family who remained in North Korea would be persecuted, but thinking, “Even if I die, telling the truth is what a human being ought to do,” I decided to confess.
Sentenced to Death
I was sentenced to death in [South] Korea, but I was pardoned and had a family, but happiness did not last for long. During the administration of Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) that was friendly to North Korea, the claim that the terrorist attack on the Korean Air flight had been a fabrication by South Korea was hauled out. There were demands that the government intelligence agency make a new inquiry into the incident. My home address in Seoul was leaked, and I was forced to move to a provincial area.
That was a really hard time for me mentally and financially. There was no one who came to my aid. I felt that I was facing the storm single handedly. Because I had children, I managed to hold up. That is the reason for my firm belief that, even in the case of Megumi Yokota, whom the North Korean government claims committed suicide, saying she would have committed suicide leaving behind precious children is a complete lie.
After the change to a conservative government in 2009, I had an unexpected meeting. This was with Koichiro Iizuka, 40, the eldest son of the abductee Yaeko Taguchi, 62, with whom I shared life for nearly two years as part of my training in Japanese.
Taguchi in North Korea was crying as she said, “I want to see my children,” is burned into my memory even now. I hugged Koichiro in place of Taguchi. The next year in Karuizawa together we made the eggplant dish that Taguchi liked. I felt we have really become like parent and child. But, of course, Taguchi, the really important one was not there.
Resolve to Help Abductees’ Families
My [eldest] son is now a high school student and my [eldest] daughter a middle school student. Both are learning Japanese as a second language and are very taken by things Japanese. My son is obsessed with Japanese [computer] games and the film Your Name. He uses Japanese greetings, such as tadaima (I’m back) and gochisosama (thank you for the delicious meal).
My [eldest] daughter says, “It would be great if I could become fluent in Japanese like you.” It is difficult to get a job in Korea now and I hear them say, “If we do our best learning Japanese, maybe we can get a job in Japan.”
When the two of them were young, my daughter saw a photograph in a Japanese language book showing her being held by Koichiro, and she asked, “Who is that?” I am living under a different Korean name now and my son has asked, “Mother, was your previous name Kim Hyon-hui?” But I have yet to directly open up on the incident. I think that as they mature an opportunity to speak naturally will arise.
I do regret that I have been unable to fulfill my promise to Koichiro, “Let’s meet again in Korea.” I also promised to make a hamburger for him in North Korea the way Taguchi (his mother) did. I’m not able to send letters freely and my contact with Megumi’s parents has been cut off. I have heard that her father Shigeru, 85, is not in good health and this has me worried.
It is my feeling that I am living in order to tell the truth. I will not be shaken in my one thought—that of helping the abductee families until the day that sees the return of Megumi and Taguchi to Japan.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)