How The Terrorist Who Blew Up Korean Air 858 Went Free

The wreckage of Korean Air flight 858 was discovered this past week, more than 30 years after it was blown up by North Korean terrorists.

On November 29, 1987 the Boeing 707 took off from Baghdad, headed to Abu Dhabi and Bangkok enroute to Seoul-Gimpo. It never made it to Bangkok, blowing up with 104 passengers and 11 crew on board. The wreckage of the occurrence aircraft had never been found.

routing of korean air 858

Preparing To Blow Up Korean Air 858

Kim Hyon-hui was recruited as a spy while a teenager. She was educated at a North Korean Army school where she learned to kill with her bare hands and with her feet and where she went through psychological conditioning. At age 22 she was paired with a man named Kim Sung-il and the team posed as father and daughter for three years.

On 12 November 1987 they flew from Pyongyang to Moscow and then departed for Budapest. They hid out with a North Korean agent in Hungary for nearly a week. That agent gave the pair forged Japanese passports. Together they all drove to Vienna. There they posed as tourists and purchased an Austrian Airlines ticket to Belgrade. They were given a time bomb in Belgrade by North Korean spies.

From there they flew to Baghdad on Iraqi Airways and boarded their target flight KAL 858. On the plane they left their bomb in the overhead bin and got off in Abu Dhabi. That bomb exploded before the plane reached its next stop in Thailand.

boeing 707 like korean air 858
(Korean Air Boeing 707 Credit Steve Fitzgerald Wikimedia Commons)

Escape And Capture

The plotters tried to fly from Abu Dhabi to Amman but their visas were called into question. They flew to Bahrain instead, and planned to fly on to Rome. However in Bahrain their passports were called out as forgeries. They bit into cyanide to avoid capture. Hospitalized, the older man died, but the 25 year old Kim Hyon-hui was shipped off to South Korea after recuperating.

She describes being shown video of life in South Korea which was so at odds with the poor, corrupt American puppet state she had been taught that she became distraught and confessed. Kim fingered future dictator Kim Jong-il as having given the order in an attempt to scare tourists off from Seoul before the 1988 Summer Olympics. She believed her attack would reunify North and South Korea.

Pardoned For Blowing Up Korean Air 858

Kim was sentenced to death in 1989 – but in 1990 she was pardoned by South Korea’s President because she confessed, and because she was deemed to have been ‘brainwashed’. The President said that “the persons who ought to be on trial here are the leaders of North Korea” and that Kim “is as much a victim of this evil regime as the passengers aboard KAL 858.”

The incident led the U.S. to classify North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. For its part, the North Korean government denied responsibility, arguing that it was a false flag operation by the South.

She wrote a book, The Tears of My Soul, sharing her story of being trained as a North Korean spy and how she carried out the bombing of KAL 858. Proceeds from the sale of the book were donated to families of victims of the attack. A South Korean film, Mayumi: Virgin Terrorist was made about her life.

Kim married a former South Korean intelligence operative who became her bodyguard. They have two children. She says she believes her family left behind in North Korea was arrested and sent to a labor camp.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. can you proofread your posts before posting? I know you have to spew out 5+ articles a day, but there are so obvious many errors in this one

  2. if you’re a woman and moderately attractive you can literally get away with anything. you just have to remember to put on a great show for the media. get it girl!

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