The Buzz

North Korea Blew Up an Airliner the Last Time the Olympics Came to Korea

Of course, North Korea is not the only state to destroy an airliner full of civilians the 1980s. In 1988, a U.S. cruiser shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290, while Soviet fighters earlier shot down two South Korean airliners, on the second occasion killing 269. These incidents killed more people and reflect poorly on both countries, but were not intentional acts of terrorism. However, the bombing of Flight 858 more closely resembles the Lockerbie bombing perpetrated by Libyan agents in 1988. Both were deliberate and spiteful state-led projects to massacre civilians in pursuance of political objectives. It still sounds absurd to state the fact plainly: North Korea blew up an airliner to drive down attendance at an athletic event.

Near midnight on November 28, 1987, a young woman and an older man board a 707 airliner on the tarmac of Baghdad International Airport. South Korea Flight 858 is bound for Seoul with layovers on Abu Dhabi and Bangkok. The couple seats itself on seats 7B and 7C, pausing to stuff a bag in the overhead compartment.

Most of the 104 passengers are South Korean construction and oil workers returning home after years working on projects in Iraq. But the young lady’s passport indicates that she is a Japanese woman named Mayumi Hachiya, while her companion is Shinichi Hachiya, her father. Since November 12, the two have spent the last few weeks on a whirlwind tour of Moscow, Budapest, Vienna and Belgrade.

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Flight 858 is heading back to a country on the brink of a dramatic transformation. In just two and a half weeks, the Republic of Korea will hold its first free and fair election after decades of authoritarian rule in which hundreds of political activists have been arrested or killed. And in three months, Seoul will host the 1988 Olympic games, a momentous event for a nation which just twenty-five years earlier numbered amongst the poorest in Asia. After a decades of Cold War boycotts, this Olympics finally promises to reunite most of the Eastern and Western teams.

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1987 is also the year film The Living Daylights came out in which James Bond teams up with a deadly female Communist agent. The passengers on Flight 858 would have only had to look at seat 7B to see the genuine article, for Mayumi’s real name was Kim Hyon-hui, a spy for North Korean intelligence. The daughter of a diplomat and a budding actress, she had been whisked away at age 19 by North Korean intelligence due to her Japanese language skills and striking appearance.

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For six years she had lived under a new name and been instructed in hand-to-hand combat and small arms. She could speak Japanese, English and Chinese fluently and had been personally tutored by Yaeko Taguchi, a woman kidnapped at age 22 from Japan for this very purpose—yes, this was an actual practice of North Korean intelligence. Kim also received training in aspects of Western life foreign to most North Koreans, such as supermarkets, credit cards and international travel, and previously spent a year traveling in Europe to acclimatize.

Kim Hyon Hui and her co-agent Kim Seung-il—a veteran spy with years of experience—obtained their forged passports in Budapest, and then while visiting Vienna received a large Panasonic transistor radio and a bottle of liquor from two contacts from North Korea intelligence. Concealed inside the radio were 350 grams of C4 explosives, while 700 milliliters of PLX filled the liquid bottle. A timer was set to detonate the C4 in nine hours, which would then ignite the PLX for even greater destructive effect.

But the two agents do not plan to commit suicide, disembarking during the layover at Abu Dhabi. Flight 858 takes off for the next leg of the journey, bound this time for Bangkok. But as the aircraft is soaring above the Andaman Sea, the bomb detonates with such violence that the pilot does not even have time to report the blast on the radio. All 115 passengers and crew on board are killed. Though wreckage washes up on beaches in Thailand, a massive search fails to find the doomed airliner’s flight recorder.

The North Korean agents, make their way to Bahrain. Weeks earlier they had booked a flight from there to Rome, but it’s not scheduled to depart for two days. South Korean intelligence has already singled out their presence on the passenger list as suspicious, and the two are detained when security agents notice that their passports are forged.

While the security guards confer outside the interrogation room, Kim Seung Il tells his partner that there is only one way their mission will end, and apologizes that she must die so young. He sticks a cigarette in his mouth and hands another to her.

As security agents return, Seung-il chomps down the cigarette, puncturing the cyanide capsule concealed within it. His body’s ability to process oxygen fatally compromised, he dies swiftly.

Hyon-hui also bites down on her cigarette and passes out. But a Bahraini policewoman manages to pluck the poisoned cigarette from her mouth before she can ingest a full dose. Kim survives.