Abandoned at birth, Kim Hyun-sil was found by Kim Hyun-do and Kim Shin-sil, a peasant couple in Gwangju, located in the Jeolla Province, the heart of the agricultural region of Korea. The two farmers raised Hyun-sil through the Japanese occupation, until Hyun-sil’s foster father, Hyun-do was arrested by the Japanese police force in 1939 and burned in a church, along with thirteen other Korean farmers for “scheming and planning to incite a revolution.” Shin-sil, after watching the church burn, collapsed on the floor, clawing at her face, and was carried to her house, where she committed suicide. Hyun-sil, at school, taught by Korean teachers under the supervision of Japanese officers, was unaware that his family, for the second time, had been displaced in his life, leaving him to fend himself on his own.
Hyun-sil easily passed through school, receiving high grades, and was unusually quiet for his stature. Built like a wrestler, he was praised for his ability to lift heavy farm equipment and ease the burden of his foster parents.
After the murder and suicide of his foster parents, Hyun-sil relocated himself from Gwangju to Busan, a port city on the southeast coast of South Korea. Hyun-sil began to keep a journal written in poor English, which he taught himself by reading Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie, rereading To the Lighthouse and The Mystery of the Blue Train. Hyun-sil took a job at a national newspaper, writing articles about fishermen and the fearlessness of the Japanese navy, and he rose, fairly quickly, amongst the ranks, eventually getting noticed by the Imperial Navy in 1942, which, to the chagrin of many Japanese reporters, invited Hyun-sil to write a profile of Chief Petty Officer Daigo Takaki. Hyun-sil readily accepted the offer, although, he had no choice but to, for if he had refused, he would have brought disgrace to the company and immediately fired from his job, perhaps even executed for treason.
Kept secret from the public for decades, it was revealed in 1971 by the Japanese Foreign Embassy that Kim Hyun-sil was an underground revolutionary fighting for the independence of Korea. In October of 1942, Hyun-sil’s diary, recovered from his house by an underground revolutionary shortly after his death, revealed his meticulously plotted assassination of Takaki on the day that he was to profile the naval officer.
The journal begins with Hyun-sil’s decision to join the United Korean Organization, or UKO, to avenge his foster parents’ murders in late December 1939. It briefly mentions of his infatuation with a seamstress who worked near his office. The journal, however, does not mention the seamstress again, focusing on Hyun-sil’s beginning obsession with avenging Hyun-do and Shin-sil.
Not much else is known about Hyun-sil’s activities from winter of 1943 to 1944, except that his profile of Chief Petty Officer Daigo Takaki was published in a Japanese right-wing magazine under Maeda Teru, Hyun-sil’s pen name. It was received favorably, and Takaki is said to have sent Hyun-sil a bottle of sake and a letter, explaining his graciousness. No such letter was ever recovered from Hyun-sil’s belongings.
In the spring of 1944, Hyun-sil, along with the UKO, were in their final phase to conduct a plot to sabotage a speech scheduled by the Imperial Navy.
On April 19, 1944, Chief Petty Officer Daigo Takaki took the podium to give his speech to the new recruits that would make their move up north. It was here that Takaki noticed Hyun-sil in the crowd, in the midst of the new recruits. He briefly mentioned this to his aide, a Korean-defect named Dong Won-yong, but no actions were taken. Won-yong’s statements indicate the Takaki was under the impression that Hyun-sil was there to capture the speech and write another profile.
Approximately eight minutes into his speech, the podium Takaki was speaking from, exploded, killing Takaki instantly, wounding Won-yong and four others on stage. Three UKO members, including Hyun-sil, exploded in unison shortly thereafter, with the explosion ripping through the unarmed cadets, in what was to be the bloodiest terrorist attack within the Imperial Army camp until 1945. An estimated 290 cadets lost their lives without ever seeing battle, and 120 were critically injured in the attack. The UKO was said to have disbanded shortly after, noting that bloodshed and violence was to have lowered themselves to the Japanese way. Hyun-sil’s reality, albeit his death was his reality, was shattered—his attack was ultimately not a catalyst for a Korean uprising, but instead, gave way to greater Japanese control.
Hyun-sil’s last journal entry writes:
Sorrow, but not stillness;
Forever we go on,
Tender flesh, supple
wrists, our pride knows
Wailing mothers, failing fathers
all this we must partake
And here dies a lonely son
never to breathe again!