By Pat Cannon —
As a North Korean agent, Kim Hyon-hui killed 115 passengers on a Seoul-bound flight to disrupt the 1988 Olympic games in South Korea. She was apprehended by authorities and after her trial she accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Savior and found new life in Him.
As the Winter Olympics are underway, Kim’s story of redemption and a fresh start — and her plea to be forgiven by the South Koreans — has come to the forefront after years in which she maintained a low profile.
“In North Korea, I lived as Kim Il Sung’s robot,” Kim, now 56, told the Washington Post. “In South Korea, I got to live a new life. Can my sins be pardoned? They probably won’t be.””
While the general public may never forgive a mass murderer, God’s grace pursued this unlikely recipient of His unmerited favor.
Born in Kaesong in 1962 to a diplomat, Kim excelled in school and was recruited early in her college career to work as a spy for the world’s most repressive communist dictatorship. Schooled in propaganda from childhood, Kim thoroughly believed in the absolute benevolence of her dictator — and the malevolence of South Korea, of Japan and of the United States. She believed she was defending her nation.
After seven years of training in Japanese, Cantonese, martial arts, code-cracking, infiltration and covert operations, Kim was ready to carry out orders to blow up Korea Airlines 858 in a desperate attempt to disrupt and discredit South Korea during their hosting of the 1988 summer Olympic games.
Traveling with a senior partner under a fake passport and Japanese identity, Kim boarded and left a time bomb, disguised as a small Panasonic radio in carry-on luggage. She and her partner, Kim Seung Il, got off the plane in Abu Dhabi.
Tragically, the bomb exploded and killed all the passengers over the Indian Ocean.
Kim and Seung crisscrossed the globe to throw off tails, and eventually make their way back to North Korea. But in Bahrain, security grew suspicious and detained them.
Realizing they were about to taken into custody, the couple bit off cyanide pills hidden in cigarettes to commit suicide.
“We were taught that if an agent fails on a mission, he or she needs to commit suicide,” Kim told the Daily Mail. “We need to swallow the pill to protect the secret. We know very well that our families in the North would be harmed, so naturally we decided to swallow the pills. At the time I thought my 25-year-old life ends like this.’
The poison worked for Seung, but Kim woke up in the hospital.
Under heavy guard, Kim was sent to South Korea with a muzzle to prevent her from biting off her tongue. She imagined North Korean patriotic hymns in her head when she was disembarking. She had determined endure even capital punishment with utmost patriotic fervor.
Interrogators drove her around South Korea so that she could see for herself the smiles and prosperity of free people. This contradicted what she had been taught in North Korea; the communists had drilled her that South Korean suffered great poverty as a puppet state propped up by the United States. With her own eyes, she could see that the propaganda was untrue, that the “tactical operation” to destabilize South Korea was “founded on lies,” she said.
After eight days, she broke down and confessed her role in the terror attack. It was only then that she pondered about the lives she had taken, the hundreds of South Koreans who rushed to airports to find out news of their loved ones. It was only then that she realized she had turned into a nothing more than a cold-hearted killer, a pawn of a totalitarian regime bent on wreaking havoc world-wide only to preserve its stranglehold on its own starved nation.
Kim was sentenced to death by a South Korean court in March 1989, but President Roh Tae-woo commuted her sentence, saying that Kim was a brainwashed victim of the North Korean government. She publicly apologized and repented for her role in the terror attack. At a news conference, she tearfully begged for forgiveness from the nation upon which she had inflicted a massacre.
Then, released from prison, she slipped out of the public’s eye. She married and started a new life. Hiding in an undisclosed location, she would always have a security detail. The North Koreans had a nasty habit of hunting down and killing their ex-agents who, in their view, betrayed their government.
Kim has two teenage children. Her husband was one of her initial interrogators in South Korea. She became a housewife. The winter games in which North Korean and South Korea paraded under a unity flag have opened afresh the wounds of 30 years ago. She is re-living the trauma of her guiltiness and asking again for forgiveness.
No doubt the quest for forgiveness was what drove her to Christ. Under communist doctrine, Christianity and other “religions” are the “opiate of the people,” a hated tool of the bourgeoisie to oppress and stupefy the lower classes. It has been standard practice of communist regimes to persecute Christians and stamp out their teachings in their supposed goal of liberating people and enshrining humanism and socialism.
Quickly after her trial, Kim began to explore Christianity. She had a brush with religion when relatives employed prayer to “cure” her of what doctors thought was polio when she was in the third grade. At that time, she was too afraid to embrace any belief in the supernatural, which she considered superstitious.
“I was scared to hear about religion in a strict environment filled with (then dictator) Kim Il-sung thinking from head to toe,” she told the Seoulshinmun Daily in 1990.
She was scared of anything “supernatural,” but she didn’t forget the episode.
Two months before her sentencing, she started receiving Bible studies. The Word and the Spirit softened her heart and caused her to surrender to Jesus as her Lord and Savior.
Once she was released, she was baptized by the Baptist pastor Han Ki-man at the Yeouido Baptist Church on March 29, 1991, according to the Korean Herald.
“I will live as a new person who will serve the society by recreating the meaning of the sinner like me and saving God and making him his daughter,” she said at the time.
Today, the redeemed terrorist doesn’t trust North Korea’s peaceful participation during the winter Olympics.
“They are using South Korea to overcome their difficulties,” Kim said. “To achieve their goals they execute their own people, siblings, families — do not be fooled, North Korea has not changed at all.”
Kim is working for South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and is currently writing her memoirs to warn the world about the dangers of North Korea. She considers herself lucky to get a second chance on life, one in which she can serve God freely.
“I was a big sinner,” she said. “I should have died.”
Pat Cannon studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica. Fellow student Howon Chun, from South Korea, contributed with research and translation to this report.