By Tomoko A. Hosaka
The Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — A former North Korean spy who blew up a South Korean jetliner more than 20 years ago arrived in Japan on Tuesday to meet the families of the Japanese kidnapped by the reclusive regime, including one she says coached her on Japanese culture.
Kim Hyon-hui was convicted in South Korea of bombing a Korean Air jet in a 1987 act of sabotage that killed all 115 people aboard, and was sentenced to death. She was later pardoned and became a best-selling author with books about her time as a spy.
She was scheduled to meet with relatives of abductees Yaeko Taguchi and Megumi Yokota, according to Kyodo and Yonhap news agencies. Yokota was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1977 when she was 13 years old. Kim claims that her spy training included coaching on Japanese language and culture by Taguchi, who vanished in Tokyo in 1978 when she was 22.
“We can confirm that she has arrived, but can make no other comments on her itinerary due to safety considerations,” said Hideo Ashikawa of the department of the prime minister’s office that deals with abduction issues.
North Korea admitted in 2002 that it abducted 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies in Japanese. The communist regime allowed five to return home later that year, saying the others, including Yokota, were dead.
Tokyo has demanded proof of their deaths and an investigation into other suspected kidnappings. The government arranged the visit at the request of Yokota’s parents, according to Kyodo.
“I think this will lead to progress,” said Hiroshi Nakai, the Cabinet official in charge of the abductions issue and a key negotiator in bringing Kim to Japan.
In the eight years since the five abductees returned, the issue remains unresolved for Japan. North Korea has not released any other abductees despite sanctions. Japan believes at least 17 of its citizens were taken.
Atsuhito Isozaki, a North Korea expert at Keio University in Tokyo, described Kim’s visit as “valuable” even though immediate results are unlikely.
“The public is losing interest in the issue, and this helps to bring it back into people’s minds,” Isozaki said.
“In a sense, that is a performance. But it demonstrates that the governing party wants to seek progress, which is significant.”
Kim — who later married a South Korean intelligence officer who investigated her and lives in South Korea — met Taguchi’s family in Busan, South Korea, in March 2009 and told her son and brother that Taguchi may still be alive.
Kim may also have met Yokota in North Korea before the jetliner bombing.
The 48-year-old told investigators that she and a male North Korean agent, posing as a Japanese father and daughter, boarded a Korean Air flight from Baghdad to Seoul on Nov. 28, 1987. They planted a time-bomb on the plane after getting off in Abu Dhabi. The plane exploded the next day over the Andaman Sea near Burma, now Myanmar, according to a South Korean investigation.
She and her accomplice were arrested two days later in Bahrain, where they tried to kill themselves by taking cyanide concealed in cigarette filters. The man died, but Kim recovered and was extradited to Seoul.
Kim has said that she was ordered to bomb the plane by Kim Jong Il, the heir of national founder Kim Il Sung and now North Korea’s leader. The reclusive state has denied involvement in the bombing, but the incident prompted the United States to include the country on its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries.
Her pardon came on the grounds that she was duped by the North’s communist regime into trying to disrupt the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and that she repented of her crime.
Japanese immigration law prohibits the entry of foreign nationals sentenced to prison for one year or longer. But the justice ministry issued Kim a special permit, Kyodo said.
Kim was being heavily guarded by Japanese police, and her itinerary kept secret due to security concerns.
Kyodo reported that she is staying in Karuizawa, a popular summer retreat town in central Japan, at former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s vacation home. ♦
Associated Press Writer Eric Talmadge contributed to this report.