Tuesday, September 21, 2010

KAL 858 and the smell test

Over at One Free Korea, a discussion of acceptance of the official findings of the Ch'ŏnan sinking led me to offer up the November 29, 1987, downing of KAL 858 as a far more glaring example of a somewhat flimsy case of North Korean malfeasance presented by South Korean authorities.

I had always thought the case of terrorist "Mayumi" (Kim Hyŏnhŭi; 김현희) and her older male accomplice having blown up the plane at the behest of then leader-in-waiting Kim Jong-il's was a little too quickly and too perfectly presented for my taste, and I had always suspected there were others who thought the same as I do. Certainly my reservations seemed to parallel those today who might believe that North Korea was probably responsible for the sinking of the Ch'ŏnan but that the ROK government's body of evidence was less than a slam dunk.

I was asked at OFK to lay out the case, but I've always been reluctant to get into it too much for a variety of reasons. Primary among them, my skepticism is purely speculative and to lay out the case would involve me playing devil's advocate at the risk of seeming to endorse that case. Second, were I to make a really convincing devil's advocate argument despite my own agnosticism on the matter (something I am scarily good at), then I may end up serving the interests of people trying to undermine the ROK itself (chinboistas and the like).

[But of course, if the KAL 858 incident really were engineered or staged, then the individuals and/or administration responsible (not the current ROK government) should be held accountable. It should be noted that the downing of KAL 858 is the primary incident that got North Korea put on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and it is widely considered an act where Kim Jong-il proved his worth to eventually take over DPRK leadership from his aging father, Kim Ilsung, something that many have suggested presumed heir Kim Jong-un has had to do with the Ch'ŏnan sinking. If (and I stress the hypothetical nature of that conditional) KJI had nothing to do with KAL 858, then we may have constructed a narrative of the Pyongyang regime that is based on a major falsehood. That wouldn't negate the horrors that we know the DPRK machine has inflicted on its people, but it would paint a picture of the Dear Leader that is quite different from that of a maniacal killer who takes down planes full of innocent people.]

But I am willing to at least list some of the things that don't pass the smell test. For starters, a mass murderer was let off. First her death sentence was commuted to life in prison, which was not much of a surprise. But then they actually let Kim Hyonhui go — and did so very publicly — on the basis of her contrition and a newfound epiphany about the superiority of the South Korean system as it headed into free elections. I wrote about that in this post:
Her case underscores one of the failings of the South Korean judicial system, whereby the flimsiest of mitigating circumstances is used as a pretext for letting someone off easy or off the hook altogether. In this case, instead of the all-too-familiar "I was drunk" excuse, hers was "I was beautiful."
If you were in South Korea at the time (Kushibo was a teenager in Seoul in 1987), there was no escaping this obvious conclusion: The press and public, at a time when the former was much more tightly under government control, had rallied around this highly telegenic personality, who had been dubbed the Virgin Bomber. The thought of killing the beautiful instigator (despite her having apparently murdered 115 people) was anathema because she was a mi•in.

As I wrote here, there are enough other oddities to write a book. From what I'd read at the time, there were no nationalities besides ROK citizens who lost their lives (which would make it easy for a right-wing ROK government to fabricate a passenger list or silence calls for further investigation after the matter was officially settled).

Furthermore, I recall that no wreckage or debris was found except a lifeboat-type thing from the wing. By contrast, after the Soviets shot down KAL 007 a few years earlier, there was a considerable amount of debris found across the East Sea/Sea of Japan, including human body parts and lots of shoes identified by family members as those of their loved ones.

A third curiosity was that although all the people on board the plane were ROK nationals, the two (ostensibly) Japanese passengers who ended up blowing up the plane didn't somehow stand out on the first two legs of the flight, not enough for it to raise a red flag that they had somehow not gotten back on board in Abu Dhabi.

But the real cause for skepticism comes when one considers the timing of the incident. KAL 858 was blown up just weeks before South Korea's first direct presidential election in decades, which was a forced concession by the former general who was running the country and his hand-picked successor (who eventually won). It was glaringly obvious that the ruling party wanted to scare the public into supporting a continuation of their hardline stance on North Korea, something which might be undermined if the rabble-rouser Kim Youngsam or the "closet communist" Kim Daejung (the two opposition candidates whose inability to form a unified front assured Roh Taewoo's win) were to take control of the Blue House.

To drive home the communist threat from up north, one of the networks on the night before the election made sure to screen The Killing Fields, a 1984 film based on true events that chronicled one man's escape from Cambodia after the murderous (and communist) Khmer Rouge had taken over.

Though disruption of the December 1987 presidential election was speculated as one reason for the bombing, President Chun Doohwan declared that the primary reason for the bombing was to scare people off from the following year's Olympic Games — ten months later.

I could go on. Korean media that night showed wailing relatives at Kimpo Airport almost immediately after the plane lost contact with Bangkok air traffic controllers, before its fate was even known. And though the terror act itself occurred in the United Arab Emirates and the two apparent terrorists were traveling on fake Japanese passports, "Mayumi" was handed over to South Korean authorities with great speed. Those things, of course, mean nothing by themselves, but as part of the whole big picture, it just adds to that unlikely perfectness with which this entire incident was presented as a slam dunk.

What do I think really happened? If pressed to decide one way or another, I think North Korea probably really did blow up this plane. Probably. The alternatives would have to be either South Korea killing its own citizens for propaganda purposes, or for the entire flight to have been fabricated (an actual plane going dark and landing in Korea with over a hundred accomplices to the fabrication, or an actual aircraft, perhaps one near retirement, being ditched after the accomplice passengers were safely deplaned; production of the Boeing 707 involved was from 1958 to 1979).

Frankly, I would love to have any or all of these points skewered and dismissed in an accurate and informative way (and I would especially love to see a believable slam-dunk case laid out that this was as we were told it was). In particular, if there were non-ROK citizen passengers who were killed, I'd like to know. If the plane was new or newish, that would also be of interest to me. And in particular, if there was considerably more wreckage and debris than the lifeboat, that could make a difference in the case. Much of this is reliance on memory of news reports back in the late 1980s, which is hard to bolster and refute for an incident that happened so long before the Internet took over our lives.


  1. Not sure the plane itself matters much. Boeings last close to forever with good maintenance, so the cost of trashing an old one is about the same as trashing a newer one. (Also, if they did actually crash it, the debris problem still exists.)

  2. I see your point, but I know that some airlines do sell off older planes or even discard them.

    And the reason I bring that up as a possibility with an older plane is that, rather than blowing it up (which would leave debris, I assume), they might have simply landed it in Korea and then discarded it or eventually sold it off to a fly-by-night airline in some part of the world. Purely speculative.

  3. dang boy! how quick did you write this?

    if i was a millionaire, i would produce the movie version. the book was an excellent read. do u think she fabricated the details of her spy training in the book?

  4. It's amazing how quick you are to change your tune, as didn't you just write this?

    "North Korea beefed up its military arsenal near its border with the South last year despite a severe economic downturn, a government source in Seoul was quoted as saying Sunday.

    The communist country deployed some 200 additional units of 240-mm multiple-rocket launchers along the heavily-fortified border, Yonhap news agency reported.

    The 240-millimetre, which can shoot up to 22 rounds every 35 minutes and has a range of 60 kilometres (37 miles), is considered by the South's military as a "core threat" to the capital city of Seoul and populous suburbs, Yonhap said.
    Oh, joy. The Yonhap article is found here.

    And speaking of antagonizing belligerence, North Korea also released a massive amount of water from one of its dams, sending water toward the South. You may recall that a similar act in September of last year killed half a dozen South Koreans."

    What's even more shocking is that South Korea can keep sending billions of won up to the old boys in the North who keep on killing people here in the South! It makes no sense as those who need the "food" aid the most will never see a single grain of rice. It seems that "being fooled" way more than twice, hasn't been enough to cause the powers that be in Seoul to lose face.

  5. Nice ideas, interesting thoughts. Good case in some regards, although weak in others.

    First, you skewered your own point about Kim getting released surprisingly easily with the part about the Korean judicial system releasing people on exceedingly flimsy/non-existant rationales (especially when the goal is to appear superior to North Korea).

    Second, I think it really is quite plausible for the downing of the plane to have scared people away from the Olympics, given the time frame required for booking transit and accomodation for such an event in the internet-less 80s, in a city far less well-served with international standard accomodation at the time than it is today.

    Third, North Korea had a very compelling rationale for wishing to scare people away: they had wanted to host part of the Olympics but were denied what they claimed, with farcical chutzpah, to be their right to so do, and they also wanted an international boycott, but it became increasingly clear that this could not be achieved by diplomacy alone. Even the Soviets were not on side by the time that plane went down.

    However, on the other hand, I don't think anyone would deny the capacity of South Korea, especially under a military dictatorship, to have faked something like this, and I don't even really think military men like Chun would have particularly balked at murdering South Korean citizens to score propaganda points, either. So to ask questions seems reasonable, even though it is not a truly compelling argument without further evidence.

  6. I'm not so sure how quickly I'm changing my tune, John, though I see why you might think that. For starters, I really am playing devil's advocate, though I'm using that diabolical channel to air some niggling concerns that have lingered since 1987.

    Second, we are talking about incidents nearly a generation apart, and several degrees removed from each other in terms of type and magnitude. It's conceivable that a North Korea that lines up massive amounts of artillery along its border — long an insurance policy against invasion or the taking out of nuke facilities — or that recklessly sends water flowing out its dams to possibly kill some people downstream is not the same North Korea that could create an international terror incident at the state level. The latter involves international planning, going beyond a critical mass of international outrage (the Yangon assassinations being a notable exception), and possibly (depending on who's on the plane) a killing of people who are not Koreans. The latter is a key point because North Korea has in the post-War period generally seen internecine killing as acceptable if they are fraternal, sort of a notion that North Koreans killing South Koreans is acceptable to non-Koreans because they are fellow Koreans. Twisted, but pattern-fitting.

  7. Chris wrote:
    First, you skewered your own point about Kim getting released surprisingly easily with the part about the Korean judicial system releasing people on exceedingly flimsy/non-existant rationales (especially when the goal is to appear superior to North Korea).

    I'm not so sure I skewered it. There is a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between the types of cases where it has been applied and to that of Kim Hyŏnhŭi, who confessed to killing 115 people. A far cry from a slap on the wrist for, say, drunk driving or my own forgiven crime of driving without a working license in hand. Except for former heads-of-state, the contrition-as-mitigation defense has never wiped out a murder slate that egregious.

    As for scaring people away from the Olympics, if an attack practically a year in advance would be that effective, then I think the downing of KAL 007 four years earlier — very fresh in people's minds — might have negated the need for such an attack. The risks — military reprisal, for example — would have been too high.

    Third, North Korea had a very compelling rationale for wishing to scare people away: they had wanted to host part of the Olympics but were denied what they claimed, with farcical chutzpah, to be their right to so do, and they also wanted an international boycott, but it became increasingly clear that this could not be achieved by diplomacy alone.

    On this point, too, I'm not sure I agree. North Korea cares less about such international prestige than it does maintaining a veneer of international respect and admiration for the North Korean public's consumption. Being snubbed for the Olympics (if it really was that, since the hosting of any events in North Korea would have been an unprecedented hosting arrangement, I believe) seems an extremely unlikely reason for such an extreme response, especially considering that they were still holding out such a possibility of holding some of the events (IOW, it wasn't a done deal).

    At any rate, the political lore goes that the bombing was supposed to be KJI's proving ground, that he handled it all himself, and if that really is true, it would have happened with or without the pretext of restoring honor to a snubbed Pyongyang.

    Anyway, like I said, KAL 858 having been downed by South Korea or the entire incident having been completely fabricated is not something I'm saying I believe. I am suggesting that the evidence we've seen is a bit flimsy for something so widely believed, and just as you "don't think anyone would deny the capacity of South Korea... under a military dictatorship" to do something like that, I don't think so many young people view the Ch'ŏnan incident so differently.

  8. In response to a comment by Joshua at One Free Korea...

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Having read your post, the bomber’s confession is pretty much the only thing that satisfies that standard in my view.

    ... I wrote the following:

    I have not read Kim Hyŏnhŭi's book (anyone who's heard or read my take that Lings, Lees, Parks, and Gomeses shouldn't be profiting from their foolish acts can imagine how I might feel about plunking down some coin to read the confessions of someone who admitted to killing 115 people in cold blood), but I would say that both sides of the argument lack a preponderance of evidence. A true confession is an easy thing to fake.

    But... my niggling concerns and my devil's advocacy aside, I believe North Korea probably was behind the bombing.

    More importantly, even if it turned out that the military dictatorship of Chun Doohwan really did engineer or fake the KAL 858 incident, it has no real bearing whatsoever on what a murderous regime the DPRK is. Just as all the wrongdoing committed by the ROK or even the US forces during the Korean War do not mitigate North Korea's responsibility for that war or the atrocities committed during it.

    Even if my devil's advocacy argument were true, it is clear that South Korea has since democratized and become a country where transgressions like those of the past would be very difficult or impossible to reoccur. North Korea, by contrast, has spiraled into an even worse hell run by people ready and willing to continue with even worse methods of keeping down the populace.

    In other words, my view of North Korea does not rest in any way on whether or not Pyongyang was behind the KAL 858 incident.

  9. I wrote just above:
    Just as all the wrongdoing committed by the ROK or even the US forces during the Korean War do not mitigate North Korea’s responsibility for that war or the atrocities committed during it.

    This was meant to be a Bruce Cumings reference.

    For lack of a better example, this kind of thing:

    ... people like Bruce Cumings, a self-loathing American who tried so hard to paint the US presence in Korea as near-evil while depicting the North Koreans as misunderstood patriots, and whose books became a bible for the student movements as they formed their anti-American sentiment. It’s an American telling us the truth about America, so that’s all the credibility checking that’s needed.


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