North Korean ex-spy meets Japanese abductee’s family

Kim Hyun-Hee

Kim Hyun-Hee

Relatives of a Japanese citizen abducted thirty years ago by North Korean agents have held a meeting with a North Korean former spy, who told them their relative is still alive. Yaeko Taguchi was among 17 Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean intelligence operatives in the 1970s and 1980s, and forced to familiarize North Koran spies with Japanese language and culture. The North Korean government, which has admitted conducting 13 of the 17 kidnappings, claims that Taguchi was killed in a car accident in 1986. But on Wednesday, Kim Hyun-Hee, a North Korean former spy who now lives in South Korea, told Taguchi’s son and brother that Taguchi was “her language tutor at a spy school in the North” and that she believes the Japanese woman is still alive. The meeting took place at a tightly guarded convention center in Busan, South Korea. It was organized by the Japanese government in its effort to convince Pyongyang to release all surviving abductees. In preparation for the meeting, which made headlines throughout Japan and South Korea, Tokyo officials received Seoul’s permission to interview Kim, who has been living in hiding in South Korea and had not appeared in public since 1997. Kim was a member of an elite unit of North Korean intelligence operatives, who in 1987 bombed a Korean Air Lines plane travelling from Baghdad to Abu Dhabi and from there to Bangkok. Kim and another North Korean agent, Kim Sung Il, disembarked from the plane in Abu Dhabi, having earlier placed a time bomb, disguised as a radio, in one of the passenger overhead compartments. The Boeing 707 exploded shortly after taking off from Abu Dhabi, killing all 115 passengers and crewmembers. The two North Korean operatives were subsequently arrested while trying to exit Bahrain using forged Japanese passports. During their arrest they both managed to swallow cyanide capsules. The poison killed Kim Sung Il, but Kim Hyun-Hee survived and was later extradited to South Korea, where she was tried and sentenced to death. She was later pardoned after she confessed (allegedly voluntarily, though some dispute this) that she had been personally ordered to plant the bomb on the Korean Air Lines plane by Kim John Il, who later became the leader of North Korea. She said that the bombing was meant to disrupt the upcoming South Korean national elections and to dissuade foreign visitors from attending the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. During the press conference that followed last Wednesday’s meeting with Yaeko Taguchi’s relatives, Kim Hyun-Hee reiterated that the 1987 Korean Air Lines bombing “was definitely a North Korean terrorist act”.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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