This North Korean Spy Killed 115 People In An Attempt To Derail The Olympics

Though there have been many scandals and crimes committed at the Olympics for decades, from audacious, systematic cheating to violent political protests, none were quite so insidious as Kim Jong-il's attempt to derail the '88 Seoul Games with a devastating act of terror. On November 29th, 1987 - just a few months before the Olympic Games were scheduled to begin - two North Koreans ended the lives of 115 people on board Korean Air Flight 858 in an act of political violence. 

When they were eventually cornered in Bahrain, the agents attempted to take their own lives with cyanide capsules. Kim Hyon-hui, one of the elite agents, survived and was brought to South Korea to be tried for her involvement. There, they learned who she really was: a highly trained North Korean espionage agent whose mission had been masterminded by Kim Jong-il, North Korea's then Chairman of the National Defence Commission.

At an early age, Hyon-hui was spotted by North Korean authorities as a potential spy due to her intelligence, good looks, and prodigious abilities with foreign languages. At the age of 18, she was taken from her family forever and trained over the next seven years to become one of their most exacting agents. When she was 25, she was given her first ever mission: to destroy KAL Flight 858. She was told that her actions would ultimately cause North and South Korea to be reunified. 

But after being captured, Hyon-hui realized she'd been duped and indoctrinated by her own government, and she confessed the entirety of her role in the 1988 Korean Olympics tragedy. Later, she wrote a memoir expressing the pain and guilt she's carried over her deeds, and she has since become a source of intel and information for the South Korean government in its surveillance work against the North. Here are the most interesting facts surrounding Kim Hyon-hui's espionage and the device she detonated before the 1988 Olympics.


  • Korean Air Flight 858 Blew Over The Andaman Sea And Ended The Lives Everyone On Board

    KAL 858 was an international flight that began in Baghdad, Iraq, and whose ultimate destination was Seoul, South Korea. It also had two layovers for its very long flight: Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and Bangkok, Thailand. 

    The North Korean agents boarded the flight in Baghdad and placed the explosive in their overhead compartment. Then, they both disembarked at the layover at Abu Dhabi and subsequently fled to Amman in Jordan. Flight 858 continued on, and as it flew towards Thailand, the device detonated, and the plane crashed in pieces over the Andaman Sea. Among the 115 people who lost their lives were a South Korean diplomat - the Korean Consul General in Baghdad, who may have been a specific target - and his wife.

  • Kim Jong-il’s Plan Was To Destabilize South Korea And Frighten Other Nations From Attending The Olympics

    Kim Hyon-hui noted in her autobiographical book that the orders for the mission itself were handwritten by Kim Jong-il and that he was the mastermind behind the assault itself. At the time, Kim Il-sung was the Supreme Leader of North Korea, and his son Kim Jong-il had multiple senior positions in the government, including its military.

    Jong-il's alleged goals were fairly straightforward: he wanted to take out a South Korean diplomat on board, as well as destabilize South Korea ahead of the big Olympic event Seoul was planning for the following summer. He reasoned that such chaos would prompt North and South Korea to unify once again in an attempt to create political stability.

    And his largest goal was to terrorize the 1988 Olympics being held in South Korea. He imagined that the chaos of the act would have frightened the invited nations from participating in the Olympics and help ignite South Korea's downfall.

  • Kim Hyon-hui Was Trained In Espionage And Assassination Starting At The Age Of 18

    Kim Hyon-hui Was Trained In Espionage And Assassination Starting At The Age Of 18
    Photo: Courtesy Photo / via ABC News / Fair Use

    Kim Hyon-hui was only 16 when the North Korean government took notice of her, and it wasn't long before they decided to "recruit" her for their purposes instead. She had both beauty and brains, and not long after she started her college career, she was approached by government agents who told her: "You have been chosen by the Party."

    They gave her a day to say her goodbyes to her family before they whisked her away to the mountains to be trained. She never came into contact with her friends and family ever again. Over the next 7 years, the North Koreans brainwashed her to total obedience and trained her in the art of espionage

    They taught her how to end lives using all manner of weapons, including her bare hands, as well as how to infiltrate other countries under various aliases. When she took on her first state mission, she was operating under the alias Ok-hwa. Her gifts for learning foreign languages was also refined to an edge. At the age of 25, Jong-il ordered Hyon-hui's first mission: to obliterate Korean Air Flight 858 for the glory of North Korea.

  • Hyon-hui And Her Fellow Spy Bit Into Cyanide-Laced Cigarettes To Prevent Capture, But She Survived

    After KAL 858 detonated near Thailand, authorities scrambled to find out who was responsible. They quickly determined that Hyon-hui and her fellow agent, Kim Sung-il, were likely suspects as they had disembarked the plane at Abu Dhabi. The two had flown from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain, where they planned to then take another flight to Rome.

    However, the authorities at Bahrain realized that their passports were forged, and the spies were subsequently detained. The two decided to end their lives and bit into the butt of their smokes, which contained cyanide capsules. Sung-il passed on the spot, but authorities wrestled the cigarette out of Hyon-hui's hands before she could take the full dose. She was handcuffed immediately but stuck to her story that she was a Chinese-born Japanese citizen who knew nothing of the incident on Flight 858.

  • Hyon-hui Confessed To The Plot After She Realized That She Was Deceived By Her Own Government

    Shortly after Hyon-hui was apprehended in Bahrain, authorities realized that she was actually a North Korean agent, and she was quickly sent to South Korea to face judgment. At first, she was highly resistant to the interrogations and claimed she had no connection to the flight's devastation. In truth, she feared that her family would suffer greatly if she revealed the plot, so Hyon-hui kept her mouth shut for eight long days.

    During her interrogations, however, she was given a tour around South Korea, where she got to see firsthand just how prosperous the country was. It was in stark contrast to what she had been told - her government declared that South Korea was fully corrupt, its people were poor, and that it was a puppet of the United States. 

    When she saw the deceit for herself, she realized that her mission had been "founded upon lies." She was torn between her family's safety and revealing the truth. In the end, she knew she had to confess, as the guilt of her actions ate away at her deeply.

  • She Received The Death Penalty For Her Role, But Was Pardoned By The South Korean President

    During her grueling trial, Kim Hyon-hui was more than just repentant for her actions. She publicly named Kim Jong-il as the man who orchestrated the entire onslaught, which vindicated many who believed that he was responsible for a multitude of terrorist acts around the world. Regardless, she was found guilty and sentenced to death.

    However, in 1990, she was pardoned by then-president of South Korea Roh Tae-woo, as he believed she was as much a victim of North Korea as everyone whose lives ended on the plane. Not only that, but her knowledge of North Korean espionage activities was far more valuable to them than the finality of her punishment. But Hyon-hui didn't express any sort of relief about her pardon:

    When I heard I was pardoned, rather than feeling joy of regaining life, I thought of my mother back in the North. How happy she must be if a daughter who almost dies then lives, but I was a big sinner. I should have died.