SEOUL, JAN. 24 -- A North Korean woman who confessed to planting a bomb that caused a South Korean passenger jet to crash is riding an unusual wave of public sympathy here as she awaits a government decision to pardon or execute her for murder.
Kim Hyon Hui made a tearful and dramatic apology on national television a week ago, saying she was a highly trained North Korean spy who sabotaged the jet on orders from Kim Chong Il, son of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Kim, 26, said she "deserved to die a hundred times over" for causing the Korean Air Flight from Baghdad to Seoul to plunge into waters off Burma on Nov. 29, killing all 115 aboard.
Since her confession, South Korea has called for international diplomatic sanctions against Pyongyang, and the issue may be taken up at the U.N. Security Council. Several western nations have condemned the North, which one local newspaper denounced as a "diabolical empire" with an "atrocious and murderous bent." In Seoul this weekend, more than 50,000 people, including relatives of the crash victims, braved subfreezing weather to attend an anti-Pyongyang protest rally.
Through it all, Kim Hyon Hui has escaped public wrath. There are no angry calls for her execution, not even any demands for stern punishment. Rather than being looked on as a vicious killer, Kim is being pitied as someone who was brainwashed by the propaganda of North Korea's rulers.
"People tend to think that she, too, is a kind of victim of state terrorism, given the barbarous nature of North Korean communists and the circumstances in which she was brought up," wrote Chong Un Bung, an editor of The Korea Times. He said many people believe she "was used like a consumer good." The Korea Herald described her confession as "a telling example that human conscience can triumph over manipulation or cheating."
Chung Chai Sik, a sociology professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, says the sympathy partly stems from Kim Hyon Hui's physical appearance. "When she appeared on television, she struck people with her good looks, unlike the looks you would associate with a heinous criminal," he said. There have been unconfirmed reports that some South Korean men have written letters to the jailed Kim proposing marriage.
There appears to be an ideological edge to the sympathy for Kim. Her portrayal as a victim reflects -- and reinforces -- the image of the North Korean government as an oppressive machine whose physical coercion and mental propaganda make slaves out of its 20 million subjects, in the South's view.
Kim also reportedly has been privately interrogated by officials from the United States and Japan.
Kim has been in the custody of South Korean authorities since Dec. 15, when she was extradited from Bahrain, where she and her traveling companion, another alleged North Korean spy, had been arrested two days after getting off the Korean Air plane during a stopover. The two swallowed poison capsules almost immediately after being detained by Bahraini authorities; the man died, but Kim survived.
The South Korean government has not disclosed its plans for Kim. In the past, the government has used pardons and executions in dealing with North Korean spies. Kim Shin Jo, part of a 30-member North Korean commando team that failed in a 1968 attempt to assassinate then-president Park Chung Hee, was pardoned for his role in the plot. He lives in Seoul, where he is married, has two children, and is a deacon of a church.
There have been conflicting reports on the government's intentions. The Dong A Ilbo, one of Seoul's main newspapers, said last week that Kim Hyon Hui would be tried but given a lenient sentence. The most recent report, from Japan's Kyodo news service, quoted "informed sources" in Seoul as saying the government will free her after "taking into consideration the sentiment of the South Korean people and reactions from North Korea."