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N. Korean who blew up jetliner casts doubt on Kim Jong Un's Olympic motives

Image: Kim Hyon-hui
Kim Hyon-hui Copyright Mac William Bishop for NBC News
Copyright Mac William Bishop for NBC News
By Bill Neely with NBC News
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According to Kim Hyon-hui, Kim Jong Un's regime is using the looming PyeongChang 2018 Olympics to try to separate South Korea from its ally, the United States.

DAEGU CITY, South Korea — She's a killer with a soft voice and a sharp blue suit. And not just any killer.

Kim Hyon-hui is a mass murderer, a former spy for North Korea who blew up a passenger jet in 1987 on orders from Kim Jong Un's father.

She says he wanted to sabotage the 1988 Seoul Summer Games.

And with the Olympics returning to South Korea in just over two weeks in PyeongChang, she's warning the world not to trust Kim Jong Un. She sees dark motives behind his decision to send athletes to the Winter Olympics.

According to Kim Hyon-hui, the regime hopes to try to separate South Korea from its ally, the United States, and eventually to reunify the Korean Peninsula under Communist rule.

"North Korea is using the Olympics as a weapon," Kim Hyon-hui said. "It's trying to escape the sanctions by holding hands with South Korea, trying to break free from international isolation."

She described the joint Korean Olympic team as "a publicity stunt for Kim Jong Un."

"I was brainwashed that giving my life carrying out a mission ordered by the Kim family is an honor."

The Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty in 1953, meaning the neighbors officially remain at war. Friction has built over the past year, fueled by the North's nuclear and missile tests and apocalyptic rhetoric from Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. Kim has repeatedly threatened to destroy the South along with the U.S., while Trump has threatened Pyongyang with "fire and fury."

Thousands of North Korean artillery pieces stand ready around 30 miles away from Seoul, a city of 10 million people.

Since taking office in May, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made it clear he plans to re-engage with North Korea — an approach at odds with the Trump administration's hardline stance of sanctions and the threat of a pre-emptive strike.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have both warned that North Korea must not be allowed "to drive a wedge" between the allies.

'I was trained only to take orders like a robot'

Kim Hyon-hui was a 19-year-old university student in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, when she was handpicked to be a spy.

She trained for years before her first mission in 1987 — carry a bomb aboard a South Korean jet and blow it up. The aim was to persuade the world that South Korea was too dangerous to send Olympic athletes the following summer.

She was 25 on Nov. 29, 1987, when she boarded Korea Air Flight 858 in Baghdad and loaded her bomb into the overhead bin of the Boeing jet, and took her seat in row seven alongside her supposed father, an older North Korean agent.

They both got off at a stopover in Abu Dhabi before the plane continued to Seoul. It never made it, exploding over the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 on board, most of them South Koreans.

"When I was given the mission, my role was to disrupt the Seoul Olympics," she told NBC News. "North Korea thought that hosting the Olympics would permanently divide the Koreas ... and make South Korea more economically powerful than the North. So I was ordered to harm the 'South Korean puppets' by hitting the flight."

She has no doubt who was behind the mission: Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il, who later became leader of the North.

"My mission was personally signed by Kim Jong Il," she said. "At the time, he oversaw all matters relating to South Korea. Living in North Korea is like being in huge prison and being treated like slaves. You didn't question an order.

Image: Korean War Memorial Museum
South Korean visitors look at a portrait of Kim Hyon-hui, seen top right, at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea. Ahn Young-joonAP file

"I was brainwashed that giving my life carrying out a mission ordered by the Kim family is an honor. So I took the mission thinking that the bombing will bring revolution in Korea and will contribute to the reunification of the Koreas."

Kim Hyon-hui had no hesitation or doubts, but claims she experienced an unusual rush of feeling on the plane.

Image: Kim Hyon-hui
Kim Hyon-hui (center) is surrounded by South Korean agents — and has her mouth taped shut — as she arrives in Seoul from Bahrain in December 1987. Kim Chon-kilAP file

"The moment I boarded the flight I was thinking, 'This is an enemy state,'" she recounted. "But then, placing the bomb, I was nervous, anxious, scared of being caught. I had a brief moment thinking that all the people in this plane will die, but I was frightened to even have such feelings. I wasn't supposed to have such feelings. I was trained only to take orders like a robot. I tried to get rid of the feelings by thinking that for the sake of reunification these people had to be sacrificed. In North Korea, you can't have these doubts, because if you do, it means your ideology has been corrupted and you'll be executed or sent to a prison camp."

And then came the only moment in a 70-minute interview in which she betrayed any hint of emotion.

Asked if she could still see the faces of the people she killed, Kim Hyon-hui replied, "Not really."

But her eyes filled and she blinked repeatedly. "Every year I try to visit the memorial to the victims to make an apology," she said, "and to pray for their souls."

She succeeded in blowing up the plane, but failed to escape. Kim Hyon-hui was intercepted by police in Bahrain who pulled a cyanide capsule in a cigarette from her mouth before she could kill herself, as her fellow spy did.

After more than a week of interrogation she confessed and was sentenced to death in South Korea.

But its president pardoned her, on the grounds that she had been brainwashed by Pyongyang, freeing her into a lifetime of protection.

Image: Kim Hyon-hui
Kim Hyon-hui Mac William Bishopfor NBC News

Even 30 years on, she is surrounded by a group of bodyguards and fears for her life.

"I think I am on a list to be assassinated," said Kim Hyon-hui, who is now aged 54 and married to a South Korean.

North Korea boycotted the 1988 Olympic Games, but it's taking part in the PyeongChang Games, sending 22 athletes and hundreds of supporters, officials, musicians and journalists.

However, Kim Hyon-hui believes the country's eventual goal is to get rid of American troops from the Korean Peninsula and predicted "North Korea will start its provocations again" in the months following the Olympics.

She added: "North Korea won't give up its nuclear weapons. They're its lifeline."

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