People either love or hate Kim Hui Ro. Japanese gangsters want him dead and the Japanese government wanted him out of the country, but when he was paroled from prison and dispatched to South Korea today, he was welcomed as a long-lost brother.
The 70-year-old with a hawk-like stare stepped out of his Japanese cell after 31 years in prison and stirred up passions about hostilities between Japan and Korea that both countries have tried to put behind them.
Kim is seen in Japan as a murderer and terrorist. He killed two Japanese gangsters in 1968 and then held 13 people hostage in a hot springs resort before being overpowered by police after four days.
In South Korea, the view is different. Some see him as a martyr for mistreated Koreans in Japan, a courageous figure whose sacrifice helped reveal the prejudices against a minority.
The warm welcome he received on his arrival in Pusan today has irked some Japanese. He was met with cheers and floral bouquets at the airport, a top businessman has given him an apartment, and a triumphal speaking tour is on his schedule.
"It is discouraging that many Korean media treat him as a hero in the fight against racial discrimination," complained a front-page editorial in Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper this morning. "It was a crime. It was murder."
But in Korea, the long plight of Kim, who recently changed his name to Kwon, strikes a different chord. Although some reject the hero's status for him, others say he is entitled. "My heart aches for him," said Choi In-Soon, 63, a Korean housewife in Seoul. "He is Korean and suffered in a Japanese jail for that long. We should welcome him with big arms."
The root of these differences is the deep resentment among Koreans for the Japanese occupations of their country, the last of which began in 1910 and lasted until Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945. During that occupation, thousands of Koreans were brought to Japan as laborers, and because of poverty and the war's upheaval, many stayed. They--and their descendants--have long chafed at their second-class status in Japan. Until this year, for example, they have had to carry identification cards that include their fingerprints.
Kim's mother came to Japan at age 17 during that wave of transplants, though it is unclear if she was coerced. Kim was born in Japan and grew up to find trouble there; he was in and out of jail often. On Feb. 20, 1968, two gangsters tried to collect a loan they had made to Kim, and he shot them to death. He fled by car to the town of Honkawane and, armed with dynamite, took 13 people hostage at an inn.
The hostage crisis was more like a circus. Kim sent out hostages to buy newspapers and invited in reporters. He told them his actions were to publicize the mistreatment of Koreans in Japan. Police finally posed as reporters and seized him at one of these impromptu news conferences.
Real or not, his claimed motivations made him a hero of sorts among Koreans in both Japan and Korea. While serving a life sentence in prison, Kim enhanced his image, insisting through letters and statements that he had rejected offers of parole by Japanese authorities who wanted him to renounce his political stand.
Even today, the Korean accounts of Kim's offenses tread lightly on the crimes: Some repeat the story that he killed the criminals because they called him a "dirty Korean pig," and the accounts stress the good treatment the hostages received during the siege.
"That was an era when discrimination against Japanese-Koreans was much more serious. In a way, it was inevitable that Koreans took this as a symbol of their fight against discrimination," said Masao Okonogi, a professor of Korean studies at Keio University in Tokyo.
But as Kim became Japan's longest-serving prisoner, and as both countries moved cautiously to repair old wounds and improve relations, the graying convict became more of an embarrassment to Japan. This was heightened by the poignant saga of Kim's elderly mother.
She refused to leave Japan and instead moved near his prison, vowing to wait until he was released to accompany him to Korea.
The devotion of mother and son was expressed in their letters and became a periodic tear-jerker in the Korean press.
Her death last November reportedly prompted Kim to reconsider his tough stance. He expressed remorse for his acts, giving Japanese authorities the excuse to accept an offer by a Korean Buddhist monk to "guarantee" Kim's behavior on parole. He was hustled from prison straight onto a Japan Airlines jet and was delivered to Korea, with the proviso that he not return.
He made the trip with an urn carrying his mother's ashes, wrapped in a South Korean flag, strapped to his chest. His first stop in Pusan was at a Buddhist temple to place her ashes next to those of his father.
On his arrival in Korea, he spoke the Korean he apparently learned in prison and won cheers when he promised that "from today, I will live as a Korean." But before he left the ground in Japan, he handed a letter to an Asahi Shimbun reporter expressing remorse at having to leave. He ended it, "Goodbye, my beloved Japan."
Struck reported from Tokyo and special correspondent Cho from Seoul. Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed from Tokyo.
CAPTION: Japanese police arrested Kim Hui Ro in 1968 after he killed two men and took 13 hostages. Yesterday, on parole, he left for South Korea.