Truth Surfaces Decades Too Late in Case of Korean Socialite

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She was "The Korean Seductress Who Betrayed America," 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 panicked city, Kim Soo-im was 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. Coronet magazine, under the "seductress" headline, reviled her as the Oriental queen of a vast Soviet "Operation Sex."

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 U.S. National Archives, tell a different Kim Soo-im story:

Col. John E. 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 espionage case, from what can be pieced together today, looks like little more than a frame-up.

Her colonel could have defended her, but instead Baird 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.

Historians now believe the Seoul regime secretively executed at least 100,000 leftists and supposed sympathizers in 1950. This one death, for one American, remains a living, deeply personal story.

Wonil Kim — son of Kim Soo-im and Col. Baird — is on a quest to bury the myths about his mother, a woman, he says, "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. Now he has also found an ally, Seoul movie director Cho Myung-hwa, who plans a feature film on Kim Soo-im.

"He betrayed her," Cho said of Baird. "He could have testified. But he just flew back stateside to his American family."

The soft-spoken theologian, 59, and the veteran moviemaker, 63, both say that to grasp the Kim Soo-im story one must understand that young, educated Koreans of the 1930s and 1940s largely favored recasting their feudal country in a leftist mold once rid of their Japanese colonial rulers. But the U.S. Army's Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge, taking charge in southern Korea at World War II's end, 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.

In 1936, as a female office administrator, she was featured in a Seoul magazine article on the new generation of liberated young women. Smart and fashionable, with a circle of sophisticated, politicized friends, she later met an older married man, Lee Gang-kook, a German-educated intellectual active in Seoul's leftist movement.

She became his lover, and Lee rose to political prominence after Japan's defeat. But within a year of the U.S. takeover, he faced arrest as an alleged security risk and 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 military police chief. Baird secured a house for her and took to spending nights there, 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 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 joined him in Korea.

Finally, on 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.

"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, and transporting Lee Gang-kook to the northern border in 1946 with a U.S. Army jeep.

The most serious charge 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. But on the trial's third day, according to a summary in the declassified U.S. file, Kim Soo-im confessed and was sentenced 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 indicating Kim's conviction was a contrivance of the Seoul authorities.

On point after point — alleged illicit use of jeeps, an Army truck, a radio and other items for "communistic activities" — Baird denied such dealings with Kim, and the Army inspector general's office repeatedly found that "the evidence does not substantiate the allegation," according to the long-secret record.

On the espionage count, officers up to Gen. Hodge himself testified Baird had no access to classified details of the troop withdrawal. Besides, the withdrawal's outlines 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 — one that couldn't be fully disproved, since she was dead.

Col. William H.S. Wright, head of the Korea advisory group, testified that her confession was probably forced through "out and out torture," probably near-drowning, or waterboarding, as it's now known.

A Korean source backs this up. In a 2005 Seoul TV report on Kim Soo-im, longtime government propagandist Oh Jae-ho said he learned from a police official that the defendant had to be carried into the courtroom to confess.

Wonil Kim believes his mother gave in because otherwise "they would send her right back to the torture chamber."

The 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 was told about his birth mother as a teenager, and her old friends 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 at a Rhode Island nursing home. Baird rejected his illegitimate son, speaking instead of a "Mr. Smith" as the father, Wonil Kim said. But after his death, Baird's family was "very warm and accepting."

Crucial questions remain unanswered in the declassified files — about the mysterious Lee Gang-kook, for example.

A profile drafted by Army intelligence in 1956 said Lee reportedly was employed by the CIA. 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. 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?

This June his quest for the truth led Wonil Kim 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.

Wonil Kim said he found the old judge "a very gentle kind of soul" who "believes he did the right thing." Their hour together proved "cathartic" for both men, he 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.