The Bombing of Korean Air Flight KAL 858: Its Legacy on the 30th Anniversary

The Bombing of Korean Air Flight KAL 858: its legacy on the 30th anniversary

On 29 November 1987, the detonation of explosives hidden in a Panasonic radio and a whisky bottle brought down Korean Air flight 858 over the Andaman Sea near Myanmar, killing all souls on board. The attack, perpetrated by North Korean agents, took place in the lead-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Thirty years on, with South Korea set to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang next February and tensions high as North Korea’s missile tests and rhetoric are causing international concern, Jonathan Joohyung Lee provides a timely reminder as to how the 1987 tragedy happened and how the South Korean authorities responded to counter subsequent acts of terrorism against civil aviation.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the downing of KE858, the most deadly tragedy in Korean civil aviation history, and the world’s most significant example of state-sponsored terrorism against aviation.

At 14:00 on 29 November 1987, Korean Air flight 858 was flying over the Andaman Sea bound for Seoul when it crashed following the detonation of two devices in an overhead bin, killing all 115 passengers and crew members on board. The bombs had been planted by two North Korean agents, whose plan was to disrupt the upcoming presidential election that December and the Seoul Olympic Games, scheduled to be held in the summer of 1988.

The North Korean Agents and Their Routes

The two agents, Kim Hyun-hee and Kim Seung-il, disguised themselves as a father and daughter and collected the explosives from a North Korean agent in Belgrade (in Yugoslavia at the time). From there, they travelled to Baghdad where, on 28 November, they boarded KE858 bound for Seoul via Abu Dhabi and Bangkok, their true identities concealed by their using fake Japanese passports. They placed the explosives in a shopping bag in an overhead bin located above seats 7B and 7C before disembarking in Abu Dhabi at 02:40 on 29 November; detonation was during the following flight on 29th November.

After the incident, Korean government authorities immediately checked the identities of all passengers on board and identified two Japanese nationals, named Mayumi Hachiya (25 years old) and Shinichi Hachiya (69 years old) who had disembarked in Abu Dhabi. The authorities pursued them to Bahrain; they were arrested on 1 December whilst attempting to board a flight bound for Rome using their falsified Japanese passports. The pair were allegedly very conspicuous and caught the attention of Bahrain security officials due to the fact that they were only carrying hand luggage on a long-haul journey. In addition, they could not answer any questions regarding hotel reservations nor why they had changed their ticket routings several times.

Immediately after being caught, the two agents attempted to kill themselves using poison hidden inside a cigarette packet. Kim Seung-il, the male agent, died, but Kim Hyun-hee survived. The Korean authorities met with representatives from Bahrain, and finally Kim Hyun-hee was transported to South Korea on 15 December 1987 to stand trial, ironically arriving one day before the presidential election.

Upon appearing in court in South Korea, she pleaded guilty and was ultimately convicted for the bombing of an aircraft and for the violation of the security act in Korea; she was sentenced to death on 27 March 1990 by the Korean Supreme Court. However, 16 days after sentencing, the South Korean president pardoned her after it became clear that she had been brainwashed into committing the atrocity by a terrorist ‘organisation’; she was released on 14 April 1990. Kim Hyun-hee married a Korean and still lives in South Korea. She wrote a book called ‘The Tears of My Soul’ in which she described her involvement in the plot and expressed regret for what she had done. She also asked to be pardoned by the families of the victims and sometimes delivers security lectures.

The Time Radio Bomb and Liquid Explosives Used

The main explosive used in the bombing of KE858 was 250g of C-4 hidden in a Panasonic radio. The radio was modified with a timer switch, which was set with a nine-hour delay. For the power source, three AAA batteries were used.

In order to increase its capacity to hold more explosives, the functionality of the radio was minimised as much as possible. It was revealed that the maximum quantity of explosives that could be contained in this specific Panasonic radio model, while still allowing the radio to be switched on normally, was 250g. A blasting cap was also hidden inside the radio and connected to the batteries and the main charge.

“…the liquid explosive used was 700cc of Picatinny Liquid Explosive…”

In order to enhance the blast, liquid explosives were also hidden in a whisky bottle, which was stowed alongside the radio. The liquid explosive used was 700cc of Picatinny Liquid Explosive (PLX), which has a similar power to TNT. The colour of PLX is dark orange and it could be disguised as whisky without any suspicion. In addition, the liquid explosive was hidden in the lower part of the whisky bottle in order not to be detected and the bottle was sealed perfectly to appear brand new. Both of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were placed in a duty-free shopping bag along with a carton of cigarettes. All items were disguised as the typical belongings of normal travellers.

Lessons Learned from the Tragedy

The incident raised many security concerns, not least regarding the novel use of liquid explosives. Despite the subsequent investigation report by South Korean authorities, which revealed the cause of the explosion to be a time bomb based on liquid explosives, most states did not take measures to detect or control liquids on flights until August 2006 when a terror plot to destroy multiple airliners operating from the UK to the north American continent, in which liquid explosives were to be used, was disrupted. That plot, almost twenty years after the loss of KE858, belatedly led to the now standard implementation of liquids, aerosols and gels restrictions and the overdue appreciation of the danger liquid explosives pose to civil aviation.

“…Kim Hyun-hee stated that they regained the batteries from security screeners after they were originally confiscated…”

The second lesson learned related to transit passenger reconciliation measures. More security measures should be applied to ensure passengers do not leave any items on aircraft, particularly at transit points. At the time of the incident, the aircraft was not properly checked by the airline for disembarking passengers’ belongings.

The third lesson learned pertained to passenger and carry-on baggage screening. The investigation discovered that there were security screening issues at the point of departure at that time. The investigator mentioned that regulations prohibited batteries on board. However, Kim Hyun-hee stated that they regained the batteries from security screeners after they were originally confiscated during the screening process. Also, screening for females and their belongings were not sufficient, evidenced by the fact that the IEDs were carried by Kim Hyun-hee and infiltrated on board without being detected.

Kim Hyun-hee's forged Japanese passport in the name of Mayumi Hachiya.
Kim Hyun-hee’s forged Japanese passport in the name of Mayumi Hachiya.

Responses of International Organisations

Following the incident, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recognised the importance of screening transfer passengers and their carry-on baggage. They conducted research into the strengthening of transfer passenger security and concluded that new regulations were required surrounding transfer passenger and cabin baggage reconciliation.

For the first time in history, ICAO set up a new mandatory requirement on transfer passenger reconciliation security in an amendment to Annex 17 (to the Chicago Convention) on 16 September 1992. The then new Standard 4.2 stated that, ‘Each Contracting State shall require measures to be taken in respect of flights under an increased threat to ensure that disembarking passengers do not leave items on board the aircraft at transit stops on its airports’.

After other specific plots utilising transfer passengers were disrupted —including the Bojinka Plot of the winter of 1994/5 and the August 2006 liquid explosive plot — ICAO further strengthened the Standard so that it would not just apply to flights under an increased threat, but to all flights. The 11th Amendment states that, ‘Each Contracting State shall ensure that measures are taken to ensure that passengers of commercial flights disembarking from the aircraft at any time do not leave items on board the aircraft’.

Kim Hyun-hee after her arrest.
Kim Hyun-hee after her arrest.

“…following this incident, the International Civil Aviation Organisation recognised the importance of screening transfer passengers and their carry-on baggage…”

The Standard can generally be interpreted as requiring each contracting state to establish pertinent requirements in their National Civil Aviation Security Programme (NCASP), national civil aviation security policies or other similar documents. Also, an organisation responsible for checking that disembarking passengers do not leave any items on board should be designated and it should be cited in the NCASP or other related documents. Related procedures should be established in a responsible organisation’s security programme, and proper training should be conducted for individuals responsible for carrying out such checks.

As well as ICAO, the UN Security Council held several meetings to discuss the tragedy and placed sanctions on North Korea in 1988. However, no specific resolutions were made and North Korea still denies its involvement in the KE858 terror act.

The United States also paid close attention to the incident. After reviewing the investigation report of the incident prepared by South Korea, the US designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism in 1988 and applied several sanctions. The US restricted the export of major items, which could be used as a potential weapon to North Korea. The issuance of US visas to North Korean passport holders was also tightly restricted.

“…North Korea still denies its involvement…”

Japan also took certain measures against North Korea, including an entry ban of any North Korean government officials to Japan. Furthermore, Japan banned any aircraft operating to or over Japan from its air space, wherever the flight had originated, if it overflew North Korea at any stage of its journey.

Kim Hyun-hee and Kim Seung-il's personal belongings
Kim Hyun-hee and Kim Seung-il’s personal belongings

Korean Civil AVSEC Systems Improved

Although the attack was naturally a great tragedy for most Koreans, the Korean aviation security system has been greatly improved as a result.

Immediately following the incident, South Korean authorities implemented several enhanced security measures, such as revising the list of restricted items to include all electronic items and batteries, which was in effect until 2002.

In 2001, the South Korean government instigated a new aviation security structure to counter aviation terrorism.

South Korea has improved significantly in terms of civil aviation security since the KE858 incident in 1988. We have set up a robust legislation and regulations structure to enhance our country’s aviation security, and our system has now been rated as world-class.

With the efforts of the South Korean government, Incheon International airport opened on 29 March 2001 with the most advanced aviation security system available. Many international organisations and foreign governments’ aviation security experts visit South Korea and Incheon airport and have recognised the excellent performance of our security system.

We are not satisfied with these achievements.

We, South Korean AVSEC professionals, are doing and will continue to do our utmost to make the country’s civil aviation security system the best it can be in order to prevent any more tragedies in the future.

Jonatan Joohyung Lee is deputy security director, Incheon International Airport, the Republic of Korea. He has been working in the aviation security field for more than 23 years. He has experience in aviation security programmes, security screening, security training, quality control activities and anti-terrorism strategies. He is also a member of ACI WSSC and RASC and is an ICAO USAP-CMA auditor. He can be contacted at jjlee@airport.kr