The late 1960s is often referred to as the time of the “second Korean War.”
Around 1967 Kim Il Sung and his advisers, finally free from the shackles of the Soviet control and encouraged by the example of Vietnam, felt that the South was ripe for a Pyongyang-led revolution.
North Korea, then, spent the 1967-1970 period doing what it could to awaken the supposed revolutionary spirit of the Southern masses. North Korean special forces raided the Blue House, they landed at the remote coastal areas to establish ‘revolutionary bases’ (clearly and emulation of the-then North Vietnamese tactics), they provoked countless clashes on the DMZ and at sea.
This was the background against which the “KAL plane hijacking incident” of 1969 took place. It is usually blamed on the North Koreans, even though this claim is not based on sufficiently solid ground.
However, it clearly fitted well into the then-warlike environment, and contributed towards a further increase of the tensions in Korea.
On December 11, 1969 47 passengers and four crew-members boarded a KAL (the-then name of Korean Air) plane which was scheduled to depart for Seoul from the airport of Gangneung, on the eastern coast of the peninsula, in the near vicinity of North Korea.
The plane was a Japanese-made two-engine turboprop YS-11, and the entire flight was expected to last one hour and 10 minutes. In those days, the train trip from Gangneung to Seoul would take a now-unbelievable 11 hours, and bus was not much better, requiring eight to nine hours.
Taking the plane, then, would save time for those lucky few who could afford the tickets. The airfare at the time was 2400 won: three times what one would pay for a bus or rail trip. The weather was good, and the trip was likely to be uneventful.
THE DAY OF THE HIJACKING
The plane took off at 1225, and once it was in air, merely 14 minutes after departure, an unexpected thing happened. One of the passengers, who was sitting in the front row, suddenly stood up rushed to the cockpit, creating some unease among the passengers.
They had good reason to worry: once inside the cockpit, the passenger drew a pistol and, threatening the pilots, demanded that they fly to North Korea.
The entire flight was expected to last one hour and 10 minutes
The name of the hijacker was Cho Chang-hui, but he had registered himself under a fake name of Han Chang-gi.
The crew chose to obey his orders, and the plane soon crossed the DMZ. There it was met by North Korean fighter jets – and the sight of these jets served as the first signal to the passengers that they had been hijacked.
The YS-11 was escorted to a North Korean airfield near the city of Hamheung where it landed at 1317, less than an hour after its departure from Gangneung. Jo Chang-hui was immediately separated from other passengers and driven away in a black sedan waiting for him at the airfield.
Two days later, on morning of December 13, Pyongyang radio made the first official statement about the incident: it was claimed that the two pilots had defected to the North of their own volition.
Interestingly, the South Korean authorities initially blamed three people whose background they considered suspicious, but only one of them was the actual culprit, Jo Chang-hui.
Two other initial suspects were the plane’s second pilot and one of the passengers, a local doctor. Only after the return of some passengers and a study of their testimonies, in 1970, was it officially claimed that the hijacking was conducted by Jo Chang-hui who, supposedly, acted alone.
Since then, Cho Chang-hui has been routinely described as a “North Korean spy,” even though the evidence remains circumstantial.
Even if he was working with (or for) the North Korean intelligence, he was no James Bond.
Cho Chang-hui was 42 at the time of hijacking. Born in South Korea, he spent a long time in the military and, after he was discharged, aimlessly drifted though society, changing wives, and often living well beyond his means.
In the few years which preceded the YS-11 incident he had no solid jobs and accumulated a massive amount of debt, to an extent due to his gambling habits.
It was believed at the time of hijacking that Cho Chang-hui was approached by North Korean intelligence operatives, who suggested that he should hijack the plane.
However, it seems that these statements are based on very thin evidence and are largely based on the fact that North Korean authorities seemingly expected the arrival of the hijacked plane, and treated Jo in a special way after the plane landing.
It seems likely that he was indeed recruited, but it also seems possible that he himself decided to hijack the plane.
Recruited or not, one wonders how well he fared in the North: his personal traits made him highly unsuitable for prospering and even surviving in the North Korean society of that era.
Upon landing at the airfield, the YS-11 passengers and crew were transferred to nearby Hamhung and housed in a regular hotel, and were then moved to Pyongyang by train. In Pyongyang they were also housed in the relative comfort of local hotels.
Intense “ideological education” began almost immediately: the detainees were subjected to daily four hour sessions where they were told about the greatness of Kim Il Sung, the glories of Juche socialism, and the bestial nature of U.S. imperialism.
They were also driven around Pyongyang and shown the-then new buildings of the North Korean capital. In those days these buildings might have looked quite impressive to them: in the late 1960s North and South did not differ that much in terms of income and living standards, and downtown Pyongyang likely looked a lot better than its Seoul equivalent.
Open resistance and disobedience, when it happened, was suppressed with physical violence, beating and, in one case, electricity torture – in those distant days North Korean intelligence personnel had little reservation about treating outsiders as if they were their own subjects.
Meanwhile, the South Korean authorities were working to secure the release of the passengers and crew. Given that at the time North and South were actually fighting a low-intensity war, it was not easy, so the Red Cross societies, as well as the UN, were used.
Initially, however, the North Korean government refused to engage in negotiations. But finally, after a few months of delays and false dawns, on the afternoon of February 14, 1970, two months after the hijacking, the YS-11 passengers were sent back via Panmunjom – not all of them, however: only 39 of the initial 51 arrived.
First, the North Korean authorities did not repatriate any of the four crew members. Given Pyongyang’s official claim that the entire affair was a defection, not an abduction, this decision was predictable.
Second, apart from two pilots and two flight attendants, eight passengers were also kept in North Korea (including the hijacker Cho Chang-hui).
Needless to say, the North Korean authorities claimed that all these people chose to stay in North Korea, in the loving embrace of the Great Leader, at their own free volition.
Given the environment, it was inconceivable that North Korean authorities would send all passengers back. They had to claim that a noticeable part of them chose the glories of Juche, since nothing else would fit the propaganda logic.
The North Korean authorities did not repatriate any of the four crew members
THOSE LEFT BEHIND
Not much is known about their subsequent fate of those eleven, but there are some notable exceptions.
Two flight attendants from the YS-11 eventually emerged as announcers on the “Voice of the National Salvation,” a North Korean propaganda radio station targeting South Korean audiences.
The station claimed to be a voice of the alleged South Korean underground Juche resistance, and thus it badly needed broadcasters who were capable of speaking polished, Seoul-style Korean.
Two young women, aged 23 and 24 at the time, graduates of the prestigious Ewha and Yonsei Universities, were a natural choice. For them, refusal would be nearly suicidal, so they were employed at the station and continued their work for a long time.
In an interesting and unusual twist, one of these two flight attendants, Seong Kyeong-hee, was in 2001 allowed to meet her mother, then 77 years old, during one of the “meetings of the divided families.”
This might be seen as a sign that she was doing well by North Korean standards: indeed, those North Koreans who work at propaganda units targeting the South are seen as privileged people. If her words were to be believed, at the time she was married to a professor at the Kim Chaek Technological College, a highly prestigious academic institution.
According to a smuggled database of Pyongyang phone numbers in 2005, Choi Seok-man, the second pilot of the plane, lived in Pyongyang (a sign of success, too), together with his new North Korean family. He was reportedly to be working for a research center seemingly associated with the North Korean intelligence.
However, when in 2006 his family in the South applied for permission to meet him, they were told that he had died recently, but left a daughter. Seemingly, it was true.
The same smuggled database also confirmed that the two former flight attendants lived in Pyongyang as well. One was Seong Kyeong-hee, who we mentioned above.
So we know that at least three of the eleven detainees adjusted to the North Korean society reasonably well, at a price: the essence of their decades-long work in Pyongyang was to find ways to weaken and damage the South Korean state.
However, the fate of these three is somewhat exceptional, and other abductees have never been heard from since February 1970. Perhaps, the North Koreans chose to hold both those who were willing to cooperate and those who were, on the contrary, too tough and too eager to challenge their jailers.
If so, some of them may have perished a long ago. Still, at the time of the incident most of the “eleven” were young, in their 20s and 30s (7 out of 11 were below the age of 40 in 1969), so it is a safe bet that a number of them are still alive in 2019.
After the incident the family members established a committee to push for the eventual repatriation of the abductees.
Other abductees have never been heard from since February 1970
As it usually goes, as time went by the committee’s activities went into decline, and now it is seemingly kept alive by the devotion of just one member: Hwang In-cheol, the son of a journalist who is among the 11 people who remain in the North.
The fate of the plane, too, is mysterious. We know that it was damaged during its landing, and from Chinese technical publications of the 1990s we know now that it was sent to China for repair, but that the task was found to be too demanding.
Finally, after much efforts, the plane was somehow restored and transferred to a North Korean crew, but its eventual fate remains unknown.
It has seemingly never been flown by the North Korea’s civilian air company or its air force. Perhaps the Chinese repair work was not done satisfactorily, or, perhaps, they did not want touch it because it was on a lease from a Japanese company?
The hijacking incident let to a significant increase in security measures taken by South Korean civil aviation. Most people nowadays, having grown used to thorough searches and heavy control at the airports, would be shocked to see how relaxed airline security used to be in the 1960s.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
The YS-11 incident, however, brought major changes. According to the new regulations, pilots had to be armed, armed guards in plain cloth were also put on planes, and the doors to the cockpit had to be locked all the time.
The new system was put to the test very soon. On January 23, 1971 another hijacking attempt took place. Initially it resembled the-then recent YS-11 incident, but ended in a different way.
On that day, a 22 year old named Kim Sang-tae boarded a plane with four hand grenades. He first blew up two of the grenades, damaging the plane, and then demanded to fly to the North.
This time the incident was clearly unrelated to North Korea’s special operations: seemingly, it was a copycat crime. Perhaps this was the reason why things did not end well for the hijacker: while he was distracted, pilots drew out their pistols and opened fire.
Seriously wounded, Kim Sang-tae detonated another grenade, but seconds before the explosion one of the pilots covered the grenade with his body, thus saving other people’s lives and sacrificing himself.
The pilot’s name was Jeon Myong-se, he was a wartime air force pilot (and also happened to be brother of the-then KAL vice-president). Another pilot, in spite of being wounded, successfully made an emergency landing at a beach. The hijacker was killed on the spot, the pilot died in hospital, and eight people were seriously wounded.
This was the most dramatic of hijacking attempts in the period which followed YS-11 incident, but by no means it was the only one.
Some people tried to hijack planes even in the 1980s, and tried to force the crew to take them to the North. However, those wannabe air pirates were usually unarmed, and often had psychiatric problems, so their attacks were stopped with little difficulty.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Roman Harak
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