Seoul derided over spy story that masked wife's murder

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The Independent Online

She was a ruthless secret agent, codenamed Suzi Kim, who was so loyal to her pay-masters in Stalinist North Korea that she was willing to kidnap her husband.

He was a well-connected entrepreneur from South Korea who narrowly and luckily escaped his wife's efforts, and those of other enemy agents, to spirit him across the border.

She ended up dead, beaten up, strangled by a rope, and shoved under a bed in a Hong Kong hotel - a fate viewed by many South Koreans as befitting a spy and a traitor.

He ended up running a company developing software for security systems, giving the occasional tearful press conference about his ordeal, hobnobbing with the Seoul élite and being paraded by his government as a national hero in the battle against Communism.

The story seemed so very straightforward, so very symbolic of the skulduggery of Pyongyang in its long showdown with South Korea and its American allies.

It even merited a mention in a paper submitted in March to the US Congress, described as a "chronology of provocations" by North Korea between 1950 and 2003. Yet it was all bunk.

It has taken years for the full truth about Yoon Tae-shik and his 34-year-old wife, Kim Ockboon - the Suzy Kim in this drama - to trickle out.

But its place was sealed among the recent scandals to erupt in South Korea yesterday. The nation's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, issued a statement "deeply apologising" to Kim Ockboon's family and to the entire population for its conduct.

Yoon Tae-shik, who is serving a 15-year jail sentence, killed his wife in January 1987 in what appears to have been a brawl in their hotel after arguing about money. After North Korean diplomats rejected his request to be allowed to defect, he went to the South Korean authorities with a story about how his wife was a spy who had attempted to abduct him and was killed by a fellow agent.

South Korean officials were suspicious from an early stage, but the intelligence service, then called the Agency for National Security Planning, seized on the case as a powerful propaganda tool against the North.

The agency took him to Thailand, where he obligingly wept as he told his tale to the Bangkok press corps. It persisted with the fiction even after he confessed to the murder to authorities in Seoul, not least because his case was a useful means of drumming up jingoistic support for the authoritarian government of President Chun Doo Hwan. Another press conference was organised by security service agents, in which he repeated his account of the kidnap.

Three years ago, Kim's family persuaded police to reopen the case, the cover-up was revealed and Yoon was jailed. The plot was later to grow thicker still as allegations surfaced that Yoon had bribed senior officials and journalists to advance his business.

Seoul District Court delivered an important ruling in the case last week. It found there had been "systematic fabrications" and ordered the South Korean government and Yoon to pay the equivalent of £2.2m to the family of "Suzy Kim", who were ostracised and reviled in South Korea after she was branded a spy.

The Korea Times said it was "a national tragedy'' for which the state was to blame. It added: "It was the state which condemned the victim as a North Korean spy in a well-organised plot and made the murderer into a fighter of Communism."