The tale of KAL Flight 858, how woman who bombed it walks free

Kim Hyon-hui now lives in South Korea after receiving a pardon from South Korean President Roh Tae-woo. File Photo by Steve Fitzgerald/Wikimedia
Kim Hyon-hui now lives in South Korea after receiving a pardon from South Korean President Roh Tae-woo. File Photo by Steve Fitzgerald/Wikimedia

Jan. 24 (UPI) -- A South Korean television network this week found what it believes to be the wreckage of Korean Air Flight 858 more than three decades after it was bombed midair.

Even more bizarre than finding the plane after all this time, is the story of the North Korean spy responsible for the bombing who now lives free.


The passenger jet was carrying 115 people -- 104 passengers and 11 crew members -- when it departed Baghad on Nov. 29, 1987 en route to Seoul. With no warning, the 16-year-old Boeing 707 exploded over the Andaman Sea, just shy of where it was supposed to stop in Thailand to refuel.

The wreckage of the plane was never found -- though some debris was found along Thailand's border with what was then Burma. Officials assumed the bulk of the plane and all those aboard sank to the bottom of the ocean.


If most of the wreckage was never found, how did investigators know the jetliner was bombed? One of the people responsible, North Korean spy Kim Hyon-hui, told them.

The plot to bomb Flight 858 began years earlier, Kim Hyon-hui, a onetime child actress, told investigators after her arrest. While in college, the North Korean government recruited her as an operative.

Kim Hyon-hui and her co-conspirator in the bombing, Kim Sung-il, were paired as a father-daughter team in 1984 to prepare for the attack on the flight. They traveled around Europe in the days leading up to the bombing before boarding Flight 858.

They planted a time bomb -- disguised as a radio -- in the overhead bin of the plane and deplaned when the flight stopped over in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Kim Hyon-hui and Kim Sung-il boarded another flight in an attempt to flee arrest, but a problem with their passports caused them to be detained at the airport in Bahrain. Fearing detention, both bit into cyanide-laced cigarettes.

They were transported to a hospital where the elderly Kim Sung-il died. Kim Hyon-hui recovered and was transferred to custody in South Korea.


There, the 25-year-old confessed to planting the bomb at the direction of Kim Jong-il, the future leader of North Korea. She said North Korea wanted to discourage people from traveling to South Korea in 1988 for the Summer Olympics.

A Seoul court sentenced her to death for her role in the plot in 1989.

Less than a year later, though, South Korean President Roh Tae-woo pardoned Kim Hyon-hui on the grounds that she confessed. The president's office said Kim, through intensive brainwashing in a closed society, was reduced to a human tool for North Korean President Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, who ordered the bombing.

After her commutation, Kim Hyon-hui lived for a time with women guards in government housing. In 1990, she told reporters she felt guilt for her role in the bombing.

"Being a culprit I do have a sense of agony with which I must fight," she said. "In that sense I must still be a prisoner or a captive -- of a sense of guilt."

She later married one of her bodyguards, with whom she shares two children.

In 2018, a coalition of South Korean civic groups sued her after she publicly said she believes the families of the perished victims of Flight 858 were pro-North Korean collaborators.


South Korean television network MBC said it found the suspected wreckage using 3D sonar.

The crew was able to identify a 33 foot-long wing-shaped object in the shadows of the seabed. An object that appeared to be an engine was also found.

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