By Paula Chin
December 13, 1993 12:00 PM

KIM HYUN HEE LOOKS MISERABLE. THE physical strength in her muscular calves and her small, wiry body is still visible, but as she sits in the living room of her safe house in Seoul, South Korea, the emotionally fragile 31-year-old beauty is on the verge of tears. Kim, a North Korean, is the former spy responsible for the explosion of Korean Air Flight 858 near Burma that sent 115 people to their deaths in 1987. As she talks about her crime, she stares down toward her hands; her voice is toneless and robotic. But when Kim describes the probable repercussions suffered by her family in North Korea because of her confession, her pain is suddenly so intense that even her interpreter begins to cry. “Every day I pray to God they have survived,” says Kim. “I have to keep thinking they are alive.”

It is something of a miracle that Kim can count herself among the living, having survived a suicide attempt and a death sentence handed down by a South Korean court. In The Tears of My Soul (William Morrow), her autobiography—a best-seller in South Korea and Japan that has just been published in America—Kim relives those nightmares and more. She tells a riveting story of her life as a spy, her emotional breakdown after being captured, her pardon and her journey to redemption—during which she has had to jettison every belief drilled into her by North Korea’s Communist dictatorship. “When I was younger I told myself I must be a good comrade and accomplish my mission,” says Kim. “It was all I knew how to do.”

She has since had a profound change of heart. Kim wrote Tears hoping to expose North Korea’s repressive regime and prevent future acts of terrorism. But peace of mind still eludes her. “I feel so sorry for the families of the victims,” she says. “I feel empty and have a sense of futility.” Under constant guard because of the risk of assassination, she has no personal life and no friends. When she does venture out of her safe house, Kim risks the angry taunts of those South Koreans who cannot find it in their hearts to forgive. “I may have been pardoned,” she says, “but even I have not yet exempted myself of my crime.”

Born in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, Kim was the oldest of four children of a high-ranking government official and a homemaker. A model young Communist, she was made a Youth Corps leader and was selected to star in two government propaganda films. In 1979 she enrolled at the elite Kim II Sung University, but when she was unable to manage her studies—plus the mandatory farm labor—Kim transferred to Pyongyang Foreign Language College the next year to study Japanese.

Proving herself a top student, Kim was summoned to the dean’s office and interviewed by a party official in 1981. After giving her a brief physical and ideological exam the next week, he asked Kim, “Will you accept the honor of joining the party? And would you be willing to die for it?” Indoctrinated since childhood to obey and serve the party at all costs, Kim answered, “Of course.” The following morning she left for a training center in the northern mountains.

For three years she studied the tricks of the spy trade until she could hit a bull’s-eye from 300 feel with 90 percent accuracy and overpower three men at once. “I was trained in tae kwon do and I know how to hit the fatal points,” she says matter-of-factly. “I was taught to kill.” In 1984 she became a full-fledged agent and was assigned to work with an older espionage veteran, Kim Seung II.

But her life of secrecy exacted a toll. After going on two preparatory assignments—traveling through Europe impersonating Kim Seung II’s Japanese daughter and living in Macao for six months as a Chinese national—Kim returned to Pyongyang and went to see her family. During the few brief visits she made to them during training, Kim had always felt the pain of being separated, but this lime was agony. Kim learned that her 15-year-old brother had died of skin cancer. And her father, who had been proud to see his daughter become a spy, had grown bitter and angry at Kim for giving her whole life to the party. “He told me he just wanted me to have a happy, normal life, and I began to cry,” says Kim. “I felt ashamed. I felt I had betrayed my whole family.” But she managed to repress those feelings; the idea of turning back, she says, was unthinkable.

Those would be the family’s last moments together. The next day Kim and her partner were assigned to bomb Flight 858. The aim was to create a sense of chaos and menace, disrupt the upcoming South Korean elections and ultimately derail the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. On Nov. 28, 1987, the two Kims—in their familiar disguise of Japanese father and daughter—arrived in Baghdad and picked up explosives from fellow agents. They boarded KAL Flight 858, put a radio bomb in an overhead compartment and deplaned in Abu Dhabi. Bound for Seoul, the plane exploded near Burma, killing everyone aboard.

The duo managed to fly to Bahrain, where airport officials detained them after discovering they had been on board the doomed flight; soon after, South Korean embassy officials determined Kim’s passport to be a fake. Following orders to kill themselves upon capture, both agents bit down on the cyanide capsules they carried with them. Kim Seung II died as planned, but miraculously, his younger colleague survived. Extradited to Seoul, she broke after eight days of interrogation and made an eight-hour confession. Over the next few months—swayed by the freedom and prosperity of the south—Kim came to detest North Korea. In March 1989 she was tried for murder, convicted and sentenced to death; a month later the South Korean government—saying Kim was not the true culprit of the bombing but a victim of North Korean indoctrination—granted her a pardon.

Today, Kim spends her time in isolation—working on Japanese translations and reading the Bible. (She converted to Christianity after her capture.) For diversion, there are Ping-Pong tournaments with her guards, movie rentals (she is a big fan of Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner) and her mail. She has received some 300 marriage proposals from men who have heard of her or read her books. (Tears and another book, My Life in Korea, have earned her some $1 million in royalties, which she has offered to the families of the dead, who have refused it.) “After what I’ve done,” says Kim, “I don’t deserve marriage.”

Still, she yearns for a normal life. Once a month she goes shopping for clothes, and she occasionally visits rural areas outside Seoul—”part of the process,” she says, “of becoming a free person.” Her most urgent desire is to see her beloved family again (though Kim has had no official word, she believes they were sent to a labor or concentration camp in the north). “From time to time I wish I were dead,” she says. “Dying would have been easier. But God has a plan—and that’s why I’m here.”