A leading South Korean newspaper recently published a three-part series of interviews with Kim Hyun-hee, one of the two North Korean agents who bombed KAL 858 in November 1987, killing all 115 persons on board.
The articles stirred up a complex strand of painful memories for me, as it probably did for all South Koreans whose pride and excitement about the approaching 1988 Olympics was suddenly punctured by the terror. The bombers, who left the aircraft in Abu Dhabi before it headed for the disaster over the Andaman Sea, were carrying Japanese passports when they were captured in Bahrain. One committed suicide before being taken into custody.
The other ― Kim, who was 25 years old at the time ― was taken alive and my government assigned me the task of negotiating with the Bahrain government to have her returned to Seoul. Although she initially insisted she was a Chinese orphan who grew up in Japan and denied any connection with the attack, her cover story was quickly debunked after she was interrogated in Seoul. In addition, she quickly learned during her initial period of custody here that her indoctrination about the misery of life in South Korea was false. With that indoctrination stripped away from her, she crumbled and confessed.
A second thread in the strand of painful memories was the mixed reaction in Seoul to Kim’s arrival here, which was greeted with suspicion by some leftist political elements. They saw the timing of the incident as far too advantageous to Roh Tae-woo, a former general who was running for president in the December 1987 presidential election.
In Bahrain, it took me more than a week to convince the government that Kim was a North Korean agent and should face justice here in Seoul. Partly because we were able to convince officials there that they probably could not obtain a confession from a trained North Korean agent, and even more because we were able to show that the cyanide compound she carried matched a unique formula found on other North Korean agents who were captured here in the South, she was handed over to us. She arrived in Seoul on Dec. 15, just one day before the presidential election. In the more extreme view of some leftists, the timing of her arrival (and perhaps even the bombing itself) was an attempt to ensure the election of Roh Tae-woo instead of one of the “three Kims” ― Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil, all liberal politicians and presidential candidates.
The newest and most painful thread in this strand of memories was Kim Hyun-hee’s assertion during her interview that our intelligence agency, under the leftist administrations promoting the “sunshine” policy of accommodating North Korea, tried to force her to recant her confession publicly and say she was working not for the North Koreans but for the South Korean intelligence service. That attempt by the leftist administration at the time, her charges suggested, was designed to improve relations with North Korea at the expense of our national honor and political unity.
By late 1987, attempts to negotiate a shared Olympics with North Korea had collapsed, and the Russians and Chinese had announced that they would participate in the Seoul games. North Korea saw large cracks developing in its common front with its main benefactors. But the South Korean leftist had a different view. An opportunity, at long last, to end the history of oppressive military rule was slipping away, and suspicions about the possibility of conservative attempts to stave off that historic change were in full bloom.
Roh Tae-woo won the election because Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung were unable to put aside personal ambitions and settle on a single challenger. But in the extreme left-wing’s view, 115 people aboard the ill-fated jetliner may have died to ensure his election.
The reaction to Kim Hyun-hee’s newest charges has been much more muted, for which I am thankful, but her complaints do feed suspicions on the right that the “sunshine” administrations were capable of the same kind of ruthlessness that the left accuses the right of supporting.
When South Koreans go to the polls again next year, 25 years will have passed since the bombing of KAL 858. We still face a determined foe in North Korea, and how we address the challenges of dealing with Pyongyang will affect not only relations across the 38th parallel but our relations with China, Russia and Japan. South Korea’s democracy has matured greatly in those 25 years, but there is much more to be done. We are still not united internally in a task that will have grave implications for us and for our children and grandchildren.
Our job is two-fold. We have to manage day-to-day relations with the North to keep stability on the peninsula and keep our economic “miracle on the Han” moving ahead. In the longer term, we have to prepare as well as we can for eventual reunification, even though we cannot predict either the circumstances or the timing of that event.
Making plans and preparations will be difficult enough under any circumstances, but it will be many times more difficult if we cannot unite and present a common front to North Korea that is above partisan politics. We cannot afford major policy changes every five years that veer from hostility to open arms and back again as administrations come and go. We can never hope to reach a full agreement among all the diverse political elements in our country, but we must develop principles to assure the electorate that our plans are based on common sense and the steady purpose to open up North Korea.
We South Koreans may have heated debate on domestic matters like limits to social welfare or the proper role of big business. But we must put competing ideologies aside when it comes to dealing with North Korea. We must draw elements of our national strategy from both left and right. It may not be possible to satisfy both sides completely, but it is necessary to keep their grumbling to an acceptable minimum. Our diplomacy and national security cannot be hobbled by suspicions on the right that the left intends to embrace North Korea’s “juche” ideology, or suspicions on the left that the right is preparing for reunification by other than peaceful means.
Relations between the North and the South are now at a low point. Tensions are high across the DMZ and national opinion in South Korea is deeply divided. One lesson we should learn from Kim Hyun-hee’s new charges is that we need a consistent policy that continues despite changes of the guard in the Blue House. If we can come together to create a common national strategy, if we can send North Korea a clear and coherent message about our policies, our energy can remain focused on the hard work ahead to bring peace to this peninsula and to the region.
By Park Soo-gil
Park Soo-gil, a former Korean ambassador to the United Nations, is a distinguished professor of Korea University. ― Ed.