By Graham Earnshaw
SEOUL, Dec 13, Reuter – The story of Korean Air Lines Flight 858 has all the ingredients of a spy movie — mass murder, time bombs, suicide capsules, international intrigue and a mysterious young woman who holds the key to the mystery.
But the plot, stretching around the world from Japan to East Germany, is so complex and fantastic that if it was proposed as a film, it might well be rejected.
The story of the South Korean Boeing 707 with 115 people on board which disappeared on November 29 and the mystery couple who tried to commit suicide in Bahrain, is far from over.
But here is the scenario so far:
KAL’s Flight 858 took off from Baghdad on a flight to Seoul. Most of those on board were South Korean construction workers coming home from the Middle East.
The plane stopped in the Gulf state of Abu Dhabi to let 15 passengers off before continuing on east across the Indian Ocean. It disappeared to the west of Burma as it approached Bangkok for a fuel stop.
There have been reports of wreckage in the Andaman Sea.
As soon as the jet vanished, the authorities in Abu Dhabi checked the 15 passengers who disembarked. Two were carrying Japanese passports, and Tokyo reported that at least one of the passports was fake.
According to the passports, the couple were a 69-year-old man and a 23-year-old woman, both surnamed Hachiya, posing as father and daughter.
They left Abu Dhabi for Bahrain where officials and Japanese diplomats visited them in their hotel. The man spoke fluent Japanese, the woman said nothing.
Soon after, they were stopped at Bahrain airport and, while being questioned again, took poison capsules concealed in the hollow filters of cigarettes. The man died, the woman survived after falling into a coma for several days.
The race was on to discover the mystery couple’s identity.
The South Korea government said it believed they were North Korean agents who had planted a time bomb on KAL 858. North Korea’s representatives in Tokyo ferociously denied the charge.
In Japan, police sources first said they thought the man was a suspect in a 1985 North Korean spy case but abandoned the theory after a fingerprint check proved negative.
Then last Thursday, a senior Japanese official said there was a strong probability the man had been second secretary in the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1970s.
The Malaysian authorities said it was unlikely and the North Korean embassy denied the connection, but the report strengthened the South Korean belief that there was a North Korean connection with the KAL plane’s disappearance.
The woman in Bahrain woke up and at first maintained her tantalising silence. When she did speak it was in, of all languages, English: “What shall I talk?” she said.
Finally, according to South Korean newspaper reports, she told Bahrain investigators she was Chinese, named Bai Huahui, born in the far northeast province of Heilongjiang.
The press reports quoted her as saying she left China several years ago for the Portuguese-administered territory of Macao on China’s south coast where she was employed by the dead man as a “housemaid and companion.”
Investors tried to piece together the couple’s movements up to KAL 858, following their trail from Hong Kong to Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia and on to Baghdad.
The Seoul press reported that among their possessions were snapshots taken in East Germany and Japanese Seven Stars cigarettes of a kind not sold in Japan for four years.
Gunpowder traces found amongst their belongings strengthened the time bomb theory.
In Belgrade, a source at the hotel the couple stayed in between November 23 and 28, the day before KAL 858 took off, said the woman once met three “oriental” men in the hotel, all wearing virtually identical suits resembling uniforms.
South Korea applied to the Bahrain authorities for the extradition of the woman and Bahrain officials said she would probably be handed over to South Korea.
The timing of her transfer from Bahrain to Seoul is being kept secret.
And Scene Six? How the story will end is still anyone’s guess.
REUTER GAE PDM