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Unraveling the mystery of a Korean 'seductress spy'

Kim Soo-im was executed in 1950 as a Northern agent, but declassified papers show the case was flimsy and trumped up.

September 07, 2008|Charles J. Hanley | Associated Press

SEOUL — Back in the days of Red scares, blacklists, suspicion and smear, Kim Soo-im was singled out as a one-woman axis of evil, a villainess without peer.

"The Korean Seductress Who Betrayed America," as the U.S. magazine Coronet labeled her, was a Seoul socialite said to have charmed secret information out of one lover, an American colonel, and passed it to another, a top communist in North Korea.

In June 1950, as North Korean invaders closed in on this panicked city, Kim was labeled a "very malicious international spy" by the South Korean military and hastily executed. ." Her deeds, thereafter, grew in infamy.

In 1950s America, gripped by anti-communist fever, one TV drama told viewers that Kim's "womanly wiles" had been the communists' "deadliest weapon." Another teleplay, introduced by host Ronald Reagan, depicted her as Asia's Mata Hari. Reviled as the Oriental queen of a vast Soviet "Operation Sex," she was even blamed by Washington columnist Drew Pearson for igniting the entire Korean War.

Kim Soo-im is gone. But in yellowing U.S. military files stamped "SECRET," the truth survived. Now it has been made public, half a century too late to save her.

The record of a confidential 1950 U.S. inquiry and other declassified files, obtained at the U.S. National Archives, tell a different Kim Soo-im story:

Kim had no secrets to pass on. Her American lover, Col. John E. Baird, had no access to the supposed sensitive information. And her Korean lover, Lee Gang-kook, later executed by North Korea, may actually have been an American agent.

In retrospect, the espionage case against Kim looks like little more than a frame-up.

Baird and fellow Army officers could have defended her, but instead the colonel was rushed out of Korea to "avoid further embarrassment," the record shows. She was left to her fate -- almost certainly, the Americans concluded, to be tortured by South Korean police into confessing to things she hadn't done.

Kim's son by Baird, Wonil Kim, is on a quest to learn all he can about his mother and her ordeal, to restore the truth and destroy the lies. Thus far, he says, he has found her "an intelligent woman with a passion for life, a strong woman caught up in the torrent of historical turmoil, and drowned."

A theology professor at La Sierra University in Riverside, Kim was the first to discover the declassified U.S. documents, a 1,000-page trove. Now he has also found an ally, Seoul movie director Cho Myung-hwa, who plans a feature film to tell the "human story" of Kim Soo-im.

"He betrayed her," Cho said of Baird. "He had a high position and the power to save her. He could have testified. But he just flew back stateside to his American family."

The precise, soft-spoken theologian, 59, and the veteran moviemaker, 63, say that to grasp the Kim Soo-im story one must understand the Korea of the 1930s and 1940s, when people united in opposing Japan's colonial rule, and younger, educated Koreans leaned to the left in envisioning land reforms and other changes to modernize their feudal society.

Cho said that in 1946, a year after the U.S. Army took control of southern Korea at World War II's end, a U.S. Embassy poll found that 77% of southerners wanted a socialist or communist future.

Instead, the U.S. military government kept many of Japan's right-wing Korean collaborators in power, and the U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge, vowed to "stamp out" the communists.

Kim Soo-im, born in 1911, was among the educated elite. An orphan, she was schooled by American missionaries, eventually graduating from Seoul's prestigious Ewha women's college, a U.S. Methodist-founded institution.

In 1936, as a female office administrator, something rare in Korea, she was featured in a Seoul magazine article on the new generation of young women.

Smart and fashionable -- a fox-trot dancer, it was noted -- she had a circle of sophisticated, politicized friends, including Moh Yoon-sook, later Korea's best-known poetess.

In 1941, Kim met an older married man, Lee Gang-kook, a German-educated intellectual active in Seoul's clandestine leftist movement. She became his lover, and he rose in political prominence, gaining a seat on the Central People's Committee, a broad nationalist coalition that sought to take over Korea from a defeated Japan in September 1945.

Hodge's crackdown stifled that effort, and within a year Lee, facing arrest as an alleged security risk, fled to communist-run northern Korea.

Kim Soo-im's fluent English, meanwhile, had made her valuable to the U.S. occupation. She was hired as an assistant by Baird, 56, the Americans' provost marshal, or military police chief, and was soon overseeing his network of Korean informants monitoring the black market, thievery of U.S. materiel and other crimes.

Baird secured a house for her and took to spending nights there, or slipping her into his officer's quarters, according to Korean and American witnesses in the declassified record.

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