Former North Korean spy who bombed jet welcomed by Japan

David McNeill
Wednesday 21 July 2010 00:00
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It has all the ingredients of the most far-fetched spy story: a beautiful North Korean woman destined to become an actress opts instead for a career in espionage. Brainwashed to despise the North's southern neighbour, she bombs a Korean Air jet in 1987 reportedly on the direct orders of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, killing 115 people. When captured, she attempts to kill herself by biting into a cyanide pill but is stopped by a guard. Her accomplice dies from the same method.

Yesterday, this exotic product of the Cold War touched down in Tokyo under heavy police guard. Kept isolated from media scrutiny by government handlers, Kim Hyon-hui will spend the next few days briefing them on her extraordinary career and facing the families of Japanese people who were abducted by Pyongyang in a bizarre military programme to train spies. Among them is the son of Yaeko Taguchi, her Japanese teacher who was whisked away by North Korean spies in 1978 and never returned home.

Ms Kim's story, her direct connection to the Japanese abductees and her unlikely redemption, enthrals Japan. Such is the interest in her here that the authorities have waived rules that should have prevented her from setting down in the country at all. She will spend much of her time here staying in the holiday home of the former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama.

As a foreign national who was at one time sentenced to death and who carried a fake Japanese passport during the Korean Air attack, she should have been arrested at Tokyo's Haneda airport. Instead, her status makes her something akin to a visiting VIP.

Some Japanese critics have already branded the visit a "stunt" that will yield little fresh information about the fate of the missing Japanese.

During her four-day stay, the 48-year-old will meet Hiroshi Nakai, Japan's state minister in charge of the abduction issue. In 2002 Pyongyang admitted kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens and released five, claiming the rest were dead. Japan believes the real number taken was much larger and that some of the abductees are still alive, including Yaeko Taguchi.

Ms Taguchi was taken to Pyongyang, aged 22, given a Korean name and forced to become a Japanese language tutor to future spies like Ms Kim. Her son, Koichi Iizuka, who was a baby when his mother was kidnapped, said that he wants to ask her "about my mother's gestures and favourite things so I can get an image of her".

Japan also hopes she will reveal fresh evidence about the fate of Megumi Yokota, who disappeared weeks before her 13th birthday in November 1977, while walking home from school. Years later it was revealed that she had been stuffed into a sack and taken to Pyongyang. North Korea says she committed suicide in a hospital in 1993. Her parents, Shigeru and Sakie, believe she is still alive and want to talk to Ms Kim, who met her in Pyongyang in the 1980s. Yesterday Sakie Yokota said she wants to hear first hand what happened to her daughter. "We want to ask her what she was like and if she was happy," she said.

Ms Kim was sentenced to death by South Korea in 1990 but pardoned a month later. She went on to write a bestselling autobiography called Tears of My Soul and marry her bodyguard, a South Korean intelligence officer.

The couple live in hiding in South Korea under police protection from revenge attacks from Pyongyang, or the families of the jet bomb victims.

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