DMZ Flashpoints: The 1969 Hijacking of Korean Airlines YS-11

North Korea has a long history of terrorism with the 1968 Blue House Raid when 31 North Korean operatives tried to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee as the most audacious example.  Once the commandos were detected the ensuing gunfights killed dozens of civilians and soldiers.  A year later on December 12, 1969 the North Koreans would conduct a more conventional terrorist act by hijacking a civilian airliner flying from Gangneung to Gimpo carrying 46 passengers and 4 crew members. Here is an article about the hijacking in the December 13, 1969 edition of the Stars & Stripes:

The plane was hijacked by two North Korean agents posing as South Korean civilians that boarded the YS-11 aircraft in Kangneung and proceeded to hijack it shortly after takeoff.  The hijackers forced the pilots to fly the plane across the DMZ to Wonsan, North Korea.

Japanese built YS-11 aircraft, image via Wikipedia.

Two days after the hijacking the North Koreans tried to blame it on the two pilots by claiming they wanted to defect.  Here is an article from the December 14, 1969 Stars & Stripes that discusses this claim:

The North Koreans even put the two pilots, Yu Byong-ha and Choe Sok-man on radio where they confirmed this claim.  However, these claims were dismissed by the ROK authorities because the two pilots were both decorated ROK Air Force veterans who the investigation determined had no reason to defect.  In fact the ROK authorities investigated the backgrounds of all 46 passengers on board the plane and cleared everyone except for two men, Han Chang-gi and Paek In-yong.  The ROK authorities could not find any background information on these two men leading them to believe they were the hijackers. The pilots’ so called confession on the radio was likely due to the threats made against them by the North Koreans.  This hijacking ended up causing a huge uproar within South Korean society because this provocation was directed solely at civilians unlike past provocations that were primarily directed at military and government targets:

What is really amazing about this hijacking is that there was supposed to be an American on the flight.  It must have been Mr. Duane R. Kinas’ lucky day because for some reason he missed the flight and avoided being held hostage in North Korea.  Who knows how different that man’s life would have been today if he boarded that plane?  For most of the the passengers and crew that did get on the plane that day they were eventually released by the North Koreans.  Two months later on February 14th, 1970 the North Koreans released 39 of the passengers through the peace village at Panmunjom. Here is an article from the February 16, 1970 Stars & Stripes about the release:

Considering how North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung was trying to create an insurgency within South Korea in concert with his series of military provocations, this hijacking seems like a miscalculation.  Maybe he realized this miscalculation and that is why he returned most of the hostages.  The North Koreans however continued to hold on to 6 passengers and the 4 crew members.  Considering the radio confession that the pilots made I can understand why the North Koreans would not want them to return, but the holding on to the other passengers and crew is still a mystery to this day. The North Koreans also never returned the YS-11 aircraft which makes me wonder what did they do with it?

Today this hijacking is largely forgotten except by the family members of those still held hostage in North Korea who have tried for decades to get their loved ones released with little help from the ROK government.  The only thing known about the hostages is that the two flight attendants are alive and well in North Korea:

On Dec. 12, 1969, a Korean Air Lines YS-11 aircraft flying from Gangneung, Gangwon, to Gimpo International Airport was hijacked by a North Korean spy at 12:36 p.m. and forced to fly to Pyongyang. The flight was carrying 46 South Korean passengers and four crew members, including Hwang Won, a 32-year-old producer for Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, who was on a business trip.

Hwang left behind his wife, a three-month-old daughter and a two-year-old son. They haven’t seen or heard from him since.

After 42 years, most Koreans have forgotten the hijacking and many young people have never heard about it at all. But Hwang’s son, Hwang In-cheol, 44, has never given up his search for the father he can’t even remember.

And he’s bitter about the scant assistance he’s received through the decades.

“For me, the biggest hardship in searching for my father is people’s indifference and the government’s negligence,” Hwang said. “The South Korean government has done nothing for me, except the formality of asking for help from the International Red Cross.”

Two days after the hijacking, North Korea broadcast a press conference through state-run radio station Pyongyang Broadcasting System. At the conference, the plane’s captain, Yu Byeong-ha, and its first officer, Choe Seok-man, said they had defected to the communist country, shocking South Korea.

But those claims were doubted, and after condemnation from the international community, North Korea said on Feb. 3, 1970, that it would repatriate all of the passengers and crew members and would return the aircraft to the South.

It reneged on parts of that promise. The aircraft was never returned. And on Feb. 14, 39 passengers were sent back to the South through Panmunjom, a village on the inter-Korean border. Eleven people – the captain, first officer, two female flight attendants and seven passengers – were held in North Korea.

“The 39 people who returned told the truth to the public at a press conference on Feb. 15 – it was a hijacking,” Hwang said. “A North Korean agent, Cho Chang-hee, disguised himself as a South Korean passenger and forced the captain to fly to the North after the plane took off.”

According to media reports at the time, the 39 released passengers said they were indoctrinated with North Korean ideology at a series of lectures. They reported that Hwang’s father got into a quarrel with a North Korean official, telling him, “All of the things you are saying are wrong.”

After that, Hwang’s father was dragged outside the classroom and separated from the other South Koreans for the next two weeks.

Another apparent transgression came, according to the passengers who returned, when the group was drinking with North Korean officials and Hwang’s father sang a song, “I want to go back to my hometown.”

“The people who were allowed to return to South Korea said they never saw him again after he sang that song,” Hwang said.

Since her husband disappeared, Hwang’s mother has suffered from poverty and mental illness. Afraid for her son’s safety, she rarely allowed him to enjoy outdoor activities or have normal social interactions.

For the past decade, Hwang has waged a one-man struggle to find his father. (His younger sister lives in Britain.)

He staged a solo rally in front of the National Assembly, sent a letter to North Korea through the Ministry of Unification and issued numerous statements.

The families of the missing passengers and crew formed a lobbying committee in the early days. “The North refused any demand from the committee, saying it was none of their business,” Hwang said.

“The committee was disbanded in 1979 when the group’s president died. Since then, I am the only one who fighting for the truth. And with no solutions, this tragedy has started to disappear from people’s memories.”

One breakthrough came on June 26, 2001, when a reunion for families separated by the Korean War was held in Pyongyang.

Seong Gyeong-hui, a flight attendant on the hijacked plane, met her mother and said she was married to a North Korean man and had a son and a daughter.

She said that the other flight attendant, Jeong Gyeong-suk, was fine, living in her neighborhood.

Except for those two, there has been no word of the others held in North Korea.

“In 2006, North Korea sent me a letter through the Red Cross that said they couldn’t confirm whether my father was alive or not,” Hwang said.

A special law enacted in 2007 says it is the South Korean government’s “duty” to make efforts to confirm the fate of abductees in North Korea and make efforts to bring them home.

Hwang said he once talked to a vice minister of unification at a meeting with families of abductees in North Korea in November 2010.

“The vice minister told me, ‘Currently, [improving] inter-Korean relations is the top priority for the ministry and it is difficult to talk about the matter at this moment.’”

“I know working-level officials in the ministry are doing their best with this issue,” Hwang said.

“However, I was really disappointed with the ministry at the time and thought that humanitarian issues should be separated from the issue of inter-Korean relations. I constantly asked the government for help, but they didn’t listen to me.”

Now Hwang is pinning his hopes on help from the international community. In June 2010, he registered his father as an abductee with the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

He was the first family member to do so and two other families followed his lead in the next few months.

Last month, the council officially requested that the North confirm whether the 11 abductees are still alive.

According to the UN’s rule, North Korea should reply to the demand within six months. If it refuses, North Korea will be listed by the UN as a country where forced disappearance happens.

“Hijacking is definitely an international crime, which has no statute of limitations,” Hwang said. “Unlike other abductions, North Korea can’t deny this case, because there is so much clear evidence.”

Hwang said that the first thing he wants to know about his father is whether he’s alive.

“If my father died, I want the North to send his remains and tell me everything that happened to him for the past 42 years, according to the international standard,” he said. “If he’s alive, I want to see him regularly, not like reunions in the past, which were one-shot affairs.

“If I could meet him,” Hwang said, “I want to wash his body from head to foot. That’s my dream.”  [Joong Ang Ilbo]

This is clearly an act of terrorism and yet according to the US State Department North Korea is not a state sponsor of terrorism . They were removed from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list in 2008 for denuclearization promises which they have never kept.  The State Department has refused to add them back to the list ever since despite them never answering for terrorist incidents against South Korea to include this hijacking where ROK citizens are still held hostage in North Korea.  The 1969 YS-11 hijacking is just one of many examples of ROK citizens being held hostage by the North Koreans which past deals with the Kim regime have never forced them to come clean on.  I have always believed that any future deals struck with North Korea should include them coming clean on the fate of these ROK citizens; unfortunately it seems politicians would rather have these hostages remain in the dustbins of history and forgotten.  They are not forgotten here on the ROK Drop.

Click the below link for more DMZ Flashpoints articles:

GIKorea

GIKorea

I am a US military veteran that has served all over the world to include in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. I have been blogging about Korea, Northeast Asia, and the US military for over 10 years.

6 Comments

  1. Interesting that neither my wife (born in ’59) nor her older brother (2 yrs older) remember this. They grew up in Kunsan (think country bumpkins), so they may have had only partial access to national news via print or radio — didn’t have a TV set in 69-70.

    More disappointing is all the press modern day abductees get whereas these 11 citizens have been held for >40 yrs and you hear nothing about them! How come Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, or Gen Clapper aren’t swooping in to rescue these people?

    Better yet, why didn’t Kim, Dae-Jung’s widow actually do something useful on her visit like this?

  2. @1- Yes you are correct that the modern day abductees get way too much media attention. If anything the media and ROK/US/Japan governments should use every modern day abduction as an opportunity to remind the world of all these kidnapped people still kept within North Korea.

  3. I would never pay $$$ to go to the DMZ for S. Korea’s dark tourism industry. Much has been made here about N. Korea earning $$$ for its tourism but S. Korea has earned millions upon millions through the decades for its hillbilly on/off stalemate war with its northern pure blooded brethren. I don’t support war with my $$$ given a choice.

  4. Peter, thanks for sharing the link. It is good to see that people are still promoting awareness of the 11 South Koreans still held as captives within North Korea due to this hijacking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *