[Viewpoint] The ‘dogfight’ she despisedMata Hari, a Dutch divorcee famous for bewitching French and German military officers during World War I, and Kim Soo-im, a South Korean socialite known to have spied for North Korea before the war broke out, are the best known female spy names to South Koreans. Both were executed. But their lives were not entirely tragic. They lived lives full of conviction and dedication. They gave themselves for money, faith or love.
After her divorce, Mata Hari made her living as an exotic dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Her sensual performance attracted royalty and high-ranking officials from all around Europe. She was convicted of espionage and in 1917 was executed by a firing squad at the age of 41. It’s said she died blowing kisses to the firing squad.
Kim, schooled by American missionaries, graduated from Ewha Womans University. Smart and liberated, she met an older married man, Lee Gang-kook, a German-educated intellectual active in the socialist movement who fled to the communist-run North. At 39, she was executed as a suspected spy who leaked secret information to communists in the North by charming an American colonel in 1950. She too died while following her passions.
Compared to the earlier women, Kim Hyun-hee, a North Korea agent who participated in the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 that killed 115 people in 1987, was not a passionate spy. When she was assigned to blow up the South Korean passenger jet, she wasn’t committed to anything. She was brainwashed into thinking her act would somehow liberate the poor South Koreans from American hands. She was given a cyanide pill to kill herself in case something went wrong. She swallowed the pill upon getting caught, but her life was saved.
After realizing what she was taught about South Korea during espionage training had been a complete lie, she repented, served her sentence, and began a new life in the South. She lectured and wrote a book to tell her side of the story about the real face of North Korea. She donated the profits she earned from her book to the families of the victims. She believed she finally made peace and was granted happiness.
But then she was betrayed by South Korea. Ominous signs appeared from 2001 during the Kim Dae-jung administration. Priests from the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice and other dissident Catholic groups raised questions about her story and identity. Under the subsequent administration of President Roh Moo-hyun, she was attacked as a fake and it was asserted that the past South Korean intelligence authorities fabricated the entire story. Dissident priests, left-wing civilian groups, and some families of the victims bought and spread the conspiracy theory.
The media increased the hype. Journalists camped out outside her door. Six years earlier, a nephew of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was shot to death in South Korea by a North Korean agent. Yet TV broadcasters heedlessly exposed her house to the world. She must have been terrified for her life and family. She took her sons and fled early the next morning. She went into hiding, looking over her shoulder during the five years of the Roh administration.
When conservative Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, she surfaced and made a counterattack. She sued the people who accused her of being a fake. She sent letters to Lee Dong-bok, an activist for North Korean rights, Cho Gab-je, a retired journalist who was the first to interview her 10 years ago, and then-chief of the National Intelligence Service, Kim Sung-ho. She spoke to civilian and religious organizations and broadcasters about how she suffered under the past government.
She spoke candidly in a talk show on TV Chosun. She described her ordeal as a “dogfight.” She was interrogated by intelligence authorities under the Chun Doo Hwan administration that announced the results accurately. But the Roh Moo-hyun administration ordered a reinvestigation, turning the intelligence agency against itself.
She expressed anger toward the agency for exploiting the evidence to cast her as a fake. She was pressured by the Roh government to emigrate. She may be expressing exasperation not only to the intelligence agency, but also dissident groups, government officials, broadcasters and all others that called her a liar.
To her, the experience must have been nightmarish and brutal. She may be lamenting her poor fortune of being caught up in one trap after another. And we may all have been an audience to the poor woman’s suffering.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin