A former North Korean spy has recalled her role in blowing up a civilian South Korean jet in 1987 - killing all 115 passengers - after being ‘‘plucked’’ from her schoolyard to work for the regime.
Kim Hyun-hee, who was later captured and tried to kill herself by swallowing cyanide, has come out of hiding to shed light on the regime’s warmongering and the desperate attempts by its ‘‘inexperienced’’ leader, Kim Jong-un, to shore up control over the military.
The 51-year-old was given a death sentence after the 1987 attack, in which she and an accomplice managed to plant a bomb on a plane travelling from Baghdad to Seoul via Abu Dhabi.
Despite the death of all 115 passengers on board, she was later pardoned after the South Korean government decided that she had been brainwashed.
In an interview from an undisclosed location in South Korea where she lives in fear for her life with her husband and two children, she provided a rare insight into the inner workings of the secretive state and its young leader.
‘‘He’s struggling to gain complete control over the military and to win their loyalty,’’ she told the ABC.
‘‘That’s why he’s doing so many visits to military bases, to firm up support. He’s also using the nuclear program as a bargaining chip for aid, to keep the public behind him.’’
She added: ‘‘North Korea is a not a state, it’s a cult.
‘‘North Korea is using its nuclear programme to keep its people in line and to push South Korea and the United States for concessions,’’ she said.
Ms Kim said she was first ‘‘chosen’’ to become a spy by party officials who turned up at her school in a black sedan. They told her to pack and gave her one last night with her family before she was given a new name and taken to a mountain spy school to be trained in martial arts, weapons and languages.
‘‘I wasn’t even allowed time to say goodbye to my friends,’’ she said.
‘‘In North Korea, I was taught that our [founding] leader Kim Il-sung was a god. You were taught to put him before your own parents. You learn from early childhood to say ’Thank you, Great Leader’ for everything.
In North Korea, I was taught that our [founding] leader Kim Il-sung was a god. You were taught to put him before your own parents.
‘‘And if you said the wrong thing, even if it was a slip of the tongue, you would end up in the gulag.’’
She said that, after eight years of training, she was picked for the mission to blow up the Korean Air jet - a plot devised by the present leader’s father, Kim Jong-il, who hoped it would scare foreigners away from the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
Ms Kim teamed up with another North Korean spy, Kim Seung-il, and the two disguised themselves as Japanese father and daughter tourists. They boarded a flight in Baghdad, planted the bomb in a transistor radio and set it to explode nine hours later. The pair left the flight when it landed in Abu Dhabi and the bomb went off while the plane was flying to Seoul.
All 115 passengers died, with the bombing prompting the United States to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. She and her accomplice were arrested as they tried to leave Bahrain after the authorities realised they were travelling on fake passports. While they were being searched, Kim Seung-il told her they should each swallow cyanide hidden in a packet of cigarettes. He died; she was revived.
She was tried and sentenced to death in South Korea. After driving through the streets of Seoul, she began to realise she had been brainwashed in North Korea. She was later pardoned.
‘‘I saw how modern it was,’’ she said. ‘‘I listened to how the agents around me spoke so freely. This contradicted everything I’d been told in North Korea.’’
She was pardoned after the South Korean government decided she was a victim of the Kim cult.
‘‘I regret what I did and am repentant,’’ she said. ‘‘I feel I should not hide the truth to the family members of those who died.’’
Daily Telegraph, London