Charles J. Hanley / Associated Press – 2008-08-17 23:26:28
SEOUL (August 17, 2008) — Back in the days of communist scares, black lists, suspicion and smear, Kim Soo-im stood out as a one-woman axis of evil, a villain without peer.
“The Korean Seductress Who Betrayed America,” as the US 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 late June 1950, as North Korean invaders closed in on this teeming, panicked city, Kim was hastily executed by the South Korean military, shot as a “very malicious international spy.” Her deeds, thereafter, only grew in infamy.
In 1950s America, gripped by anticommunist fever, one TV drama told viewers 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 and her love triangle are gone, buried in separate corners of a turbulent past. But in yellowing U.S. military files stamped “SECRET,” hibernating through a long winter of Cold War, the truth survived. Now it has emerged, a half-century too late to save her.
The record of a confidential 1950 U.S. inquiry and other declassified files, obtained by the Associated Press at the National Archives, tell a different Kim Soo-im story:
Col. John Baird had no access to the supposed sensitive information. Kim had no secrets to pass on. And her Korean lover, Lee Gang-kook, later executed by North Korea, may actually have been an American agent.
The petite woman smiling out from faded photographs, in silken “hanbuk” gown, may have been guilty of indiscretions. But the espionage case against her looks in retrospect – from what can be pieced together today – 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.
The story of Kim Soo-im is a cautionary tale of political hysteria, fear-mongering and sensationalist media, from a time when historians now believe the Seoul regime secretively executed at least 100,000 leftists and supposed sympathizers.
Those killings came en masse and long ago. But this one woman’s death remains, for one American, a living, deeply personal story.
Wonil Kim – son of Kim Soo-im and Col. Baird – 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.”
The son, a theology professor at California’s LaSierra University, was the first to discover the declassified U.S. documents, a 1,000-page trove of hidden history. 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, both 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 and other reforms to modernize their feudal society.
Cho pointed out a little-known fact: In 1946, a year after the U.S. Army occupied southern Korea at World War II’s end, a U.S. Embassy poll found that 77 percent 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 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, founded by U.S. Methodists.
In 1936, as a female office administrator, something rare in Korea, she was featured in a Seoul magazine article on the new generation of liberated 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, the Americans’ 56-year-old, Irish-born 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.
“She had a baby by Col. Baird,” Kim’s friend Nancy Kim would later tell U.S. interrogators. “We all knew. He was the only man friend of Kim Soo-im. He slept in the house many times. The baby looks like the father.”
When the U.S. occupation Army withdrew in 1949, succeeded by an advisory corps, Baird shifted to assisting the national police, and his American wife came to Korea to join him. In North Korea, meanwhile, Kim’s ex-lover Lee, risen to important posts, made broadcasts denouncing the southern regime.
Finally, March 1, 1950, Kim, no longer U.S.-employed, was arrested by South Korean police, joining thousands of others ensnared in President Syngman Rhee’s roundups of leftists – workers and writers, teachers, peasants and others with suspect politics.
“It was witch-hunting,” said historian Jung Byung-joon, who has studied the case. “The South Korean police and prosecutors hated her because she was the lover of Lee Gang-kook, and then of Col. Baird, and nobody could touch her. They waited for their chance.”
On June 14, 1950, nine days after Baird sailed from Korea, Kim Soo-im faced a five-judge South Korean military court and a long list of alleged crimes, including obtaining vehicles from the colonel that she lent or sold to “communist” friends, keeping guns at her house, and transporting Lee Gang-kook to the northern border in 1946 with a U.S. Army jeep.
The most serious charge at the trial, a headline event in Seoul newspapers, accused her of eliciting the classified 1949 U.S. withdrawal plans from Baird, and relaying them to the northern communists.
As her court-appointed lawyer noted, the government presented neither material evidence nor witnesses to back up the charges. The court even rejected guns the prosecutors offered as exhibits. “The Korean police at the time were notorious for fabricating evidence that didn’t exist,” said Wonil Kim.
But on the trial’s third day, according to a summary in the declassified U.S. file, Kim Soo-im confessed. She said she had asked Baird about withdrawal plans, and shared the information with friends, only because they were worried about their future U.S. employment.
Her friend Moh pleaded for mercy, “moving the audience to tears” with the story of Kim’s deprived childhood, the summary says. But the court sentenced her to death.
Just weeks after her execution, however, and across the Pacific, U.S. military investigators reviewing Baird’s role were hearing confidential testimony from Army officers and enlisted men indicating Kim’s conviction was a contrivance of the Seoul authorities.
On point after point – alleged illicit use of jeeps, an Army truck, sedans, a radio and other items for “communistic activities” – Baird staunchly denied such dealings with Kim, and the inspector general’s office repeatedly found that “the evidence does not substantiate the allegation,” according to the long-secret record of the 1950 Pentagon inquiry.
On the key count of espionage, officers up to Hodge himself testified Baird had no access to the details of classified plans for the troop withdrawal. Besides, the outlines of the withdrawal had been reported in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper available to all.
The investigators concluded there was only a “remote possibility” Kim Soo-im used Baird as alleged. Since she was dead, they said, that couldn’t be fully disproved.
Col. William Wright, head of the Korea advisory group, had testified that her confession was probably forced through “out and out torture,” probably near-drowning, or waterboarding, as it’s now known.
“The water cure is a very common method,” Wright said. “Electric shock and the use of pliers is frequent.”
A Korean source backs this up. In a 2005 Seoul TV report on Kim Soo-im, longtime government propagandist Oh Jae-ho, a staunch anticommunist, said he learned from a police official that the defendant had to be carried into the courtroom to confess on the final day.
“It was truly an emotional moment for me to hear him say it,” recalled Wonil Kim. The son believes Kim Soo-im gave in because otherwise “they would send her right back to the torture chamber.”
In the turmoil of war, this year-old orphaned boy was adopted by a church administrator and his wife, a head nurse at the hospital where Kim gave birth. In 1970, the Korean family moved to the United States, where Wonil Kim eventually earned a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies.
He had been told about his birth mother as a teenager, and her old friends and others later informed him about his father, to whom he bears a strong resemblance. The painful legacy never left his mind.
Not long before Baird died in 1980, at age 90, Wonil tracked the old colonel down, finding him in a Rhode Island nursing home. Baird rejected his illegitimate son, speaking instead of a “Mr. Smith” as the father, Wonil Kim said. But after Baird’s death, his family came to know and accept their half-Korean relative.
Baird would never have “really stuck his neck out to save her,” Wonil Kim said. But he also knew that the writer Moh, in her memoirs, recounted that the American officer “came to her begging her to save her, my mother.”
It wasn’t until he discovered the long-classified Baird investigative files that Wonil Kim began to learn of the flimsy case that condemned Kim Soo-im. But crucial questions remain – about the mysterious Lee Gang-kook, for example.
A confidential profile drafted by Army intelligence in 1956 said Lee was reported to have been employed by the CIA’s covert Joint Activities Commission, Korea. And, in fact, the North Koreans executed Lee as an “American spy” after the Korean War ended with a 1953 armistice.
Historian Jung, who discovered that declassified profile at the National Archives in College Park, Md., still believes with other historians that North Korean leader Kim Il Sung had Lee and other southerners executed to eliminate potential rivals.
The isolated document remains a puzzle, nonetheless, raising further questions about Kim Soo-im’s tangled relationships. Wonil Kim suspects that his mother, entrusted with a U.S. military vehicle, did help her lover Lee get to northern Korea in 1946, a time when it was still easy for intelligence operatives to cross the 38th Parallel. Was Lee somehow linked to the Americans?
The Baird file, meanwhile, leaves another question unanswered.
Completing its 1950 investigation, the Army inspector general’s office recommended that Baird be court-martialed for bringing discredit on the Army through his scandalous liaison with a Korean mistress. But within a month the file was stamped “Case closed.” The facts on Kim Soo-im were locked away for a half-century. Who blocked a trial and why?
As moviemakers must, Cho will fill in such unknowns with best guesses or surprise twists of plot. But Wonil Kim still seeks the truth, a quest that this June led him to a surprising figure, a feeble, 88-year-old Seoul lawyer who as a young army officer was one of five judges who sent Kim Soo-im to her death.
After meeting the son, elderly ex-soldier Kim Tae-chung spoke briefly with the AP, defending the long-ago verdict, but saying he’d told Wonil that Kim Soo-im “to me didn’t look like a bad person.”
Was she tortured? the AP asked.
“All I know is what happened in the courtroom,” Kim Tae-chung protested. “I don’t know anything beyond that.”
The theologian son said he didn’t meet with the old judge to challenge him. In fact, he found him “a very gentle kind of soul … honest in his own way … a very anticommunist and conservative Christian” who “believes he did the right thing.”
Their hour together proved “cathartic,” “redemptive” for both men, Wonil Kim said. And for a son on a sad, dutiful mission, it proved essential.
“I just needed to be with someone who was in the courtroom with her,” he said – to talk about his mother, to summon up the memory of Kim Soo-im, before that memory slips finally, forever into the grave.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, Section 107, for noncommercial, educational purposes.