DMZ Flashpoints: The 1983 Hijacking of CAAC Flight 296 to Camp Page

Introduction

There has been some strange incidents over the years involving the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), but one of the weirdest was when a hijacked Chinese airliner crossed over the DMZ on May 5, 1983 and landed at the US Army base Camp Page.  This was the first successful hijacking of a Chinese plane that ultimately ended up leading to the thawing of relations between South Korea and China.


Example of a CAAC Trident Jet that was hijacked. 

The Hijacking

The hijacked plane was a British made Trident jet that was part of China’s state owned airline called the Civilian Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).  The plane CAAC Flight 296 was making a routine domestic flight between Shenyang in northeast China and Shanghai with 96 passengers and 9 crew members on board when it was seized by 6 hijackers.  The hijackers were composed of five men and one woman who were armed with pistols and led by a man named An Weijian.  They used their weapons to blast open the door to the cockpit where during a skirmish for control of the plane a total of eight shots were fired wounding two crew members in the legs.  After successfully taking control of the aircraft the Chinese hijackers demanded to be flown to Taiwan where they hoped to defect.

Possibly fearing retribution from the Chinese government if he complied with the hijackers demands, the pilot did not fly the plane towards Taiwan, the pilot instead flew the plane towards Pyongyang.  1983 was during the Cold War when tensions were high and the pilot deciding to fly the airliner into North Korean airspace was a risky move.  He had no way of knowing how the North Koreans would react to an unannounced aircraft suddenly flying over their country.

The North Koreans initially reacted by monitoring the aircraft by radar.  However, since they were informed that it was a Chinese civilian airliner they took a wait and see approach with the aircraft.  The North Korea ground controllers may have even been working in concert with the pilot to dupe the hijackers since the North Korean Air Force did not dispatch any planes to intercept the airliner.  As the airliner approached Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport one of the hijackers noticed a big picture of North Korea’s leader, Kim Il-sung which tipped them off that they were being fooled by the pilot.  The hijackers forced the plane to divert the landing and instead head to South Korea.

After the aborted landing this is when the people on the airliner got very lucky.  It is likely that the North Korean government would want to stop this airliner from crossing the DMZ and entering South Korea.  However, the North Korean air defense authorities could not get a hold of the Kim Il-sung to authorize the shoot down of the aircraft.

Then, one of the hijackers detected something amiss when he saw a North Korean sign _ a big portrait of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North and its then leader _ as the plane was approaching Pyongyang airport. The hijackers threatened the pilot at gunpoint, forcing him to abort the landing and head to the South. It landed at U.S. Camp Page in Chunchun, in the South’s Gangwon Province. Now, it took about 20 minutes for the the British-made HS121Trident aircraft to fly from Pyongyang to Chunchon with the North Korean air defense all but paralyzed.

The North Korean air defense commander was reprimanded for his failure to respond according to the manual for such an emergency. But he was spared from a firing squad because he tried without success to locate Kim Il-sung to gain his clearance to go after the aircraft as the regulations stipulated. Kim was out of touch and nobody except for him could make a decision about such a situation.  [Korea Times]

Due to the command paralyzation in North Korea, the Chinese airliner was able to safely cross the DMZ where it landed at the US military base of Camp Page outside the city of Chuncheon:

Hijackers Give Themselves Up at Camp Page

After the plane crossed over the DMZ it was intercepted by ROK Air Force fighter jets.  The pilot moved his wing left to right which is a signal of defection.  The ROK fighters escorted the plane towards the military airfield at Camp Page.  Once the plane landed at Camp Page negotiations with ROK authorities began with the hijackers to release the crew and passengers.  The hijackers eventually agreed to release the hostages where the two wounded crewmen were immediately taken to a hospital in Seoul for medical attention.  The remaining crew and passengers were put up at a luxury hotel in eastern Seoul.  Shortly after releasing the hostages the hijackers were taken into custody by ROK authorities without incident after requesting political asylum in Taiwan.  The Taiwanese government responded by saying they welcome “anyone aboard who desires to come to our home country.”

After taking the ROK authorities took the hijackers into custody, the Chinese government demanded the plane, passengers, and hijackers all be returned to China.  This is where things were tricky because at the time time South Korea and China did not have official diplomatic relations due to its decades long animosity of Chinese support to North Korea during the Korean War.  South Korea responded to the Chinese demands by saying they would respect the “spirit” of the 1970 Convention of the Hague which outlawed skyjackings without saying what they would do with the six hijackers.

Negotiations

Two days after the hijacking a 33 person Chinese delegation arrived in Seoul led by the CAAC Director Shen Tu. Through negotiations the Chinese and the ROK agreed to the return of the plane, its crew, and all Chinese passengers back to China.  The hijackers however would be subject to Korean law.  At the time it was a good compromise to resolve the dispute.  While negotiations were going on the passengers were warmly received by the Koreans.  During their time in South Korea the Chinese passengers were put on a sightseeing tour, received lavish meals, gifts, and entertainment.  The overall bill came up to over $28,000.  The three Japanese passengers on the plane however did not get to enjoy the lavish treatment, there were immediately returned to Japan the day after the hijacking.

Five days after the incident on May 10, 1983 all the passengers and crew were returned to South Korea and two weeks after the incident the Trident plane was returned as well:

A Chinese passenger plane hijacked to South Korea two weeks ago left for home Wednesday, ending an incident that led to the first official contact between China and South Korea.

The British-made Trident jetliner of China’s state airline, CAAC, left Seoul’s Kimpo International Airport at 10 a.m. with 13 people aboard.

Among the passengers was a radio operator who was one of two crew members wounded May 5 when five men and a woman armed with two pistols hijacked the plane to South Korea in the first hijacking of a jetliner out of China.

The plane’s 96 passengers and eight other crew members returned home May 10.  [UPI]

The crew and passengers when they arrived in China were greeted with the same type of welcome they received in South Korea.  Approximately two hundred weeping well wishers were present for their arrival and presented them with flowers.  They then met with politicians and then attended a reception to welcome them back to China.

Punishment

The return of the plane and passengers officially ended the dispute between the ROK and China, however the South Koreans still needed to prosecute the six hijackers they held in custody.  The hijackers received incredibly light sentences by receiving less than a year in jail before being resettled in Taiwan to a heroes welcome:

In 1983, six Chinese hijacked a plane to South Korea. They were imprisoned for less than a year and resettled in Taiwan, where they received heroes’ welcomes.  [Deseret News]

The punishment for the hijackers is probably what bothers me the most about this story.  They hijacked a plane, put the lives of the 96 passengers at risk, and shot two crew members, but their punishment was receiving less than a year in jail.  The political situation should have been put aside at the time and these hijackers should have been harshly dealt with to prevent future hijackings.

Conclusion

The aftermath of the CAAC Flight 296 hijacking did have some important ramifications.  First of all is that the hijacking showed how initiative within the North Korean military is held back because of the centralized control of the regime.  This incident also proved how North Korea did not have an adequate system in place to contact the top leadership in case of an emergency.  I would not be surprised if initiative in the North Korean military even today is still stifled because of the extreme controls the Kim regime needs to keep in place to control the country.  However, with the modern technology available today it is likely that the North Koreans have quicker access to its top leadership to make decisions if needed.

This hijacking also became a turning point for ROK and Chinese relations.  After the hijacking the two countries who had long been suspicious of each other, began a series of exchanges in sports, industry, and international conference attendance.  These positives events eventually led to South Korea severing relations with Taiwan in 1992 and officially establishing diplomatic ties with China on August 24, 1992.  Since then China has gone on to become South Korea’s #1 trade partner.  It is interesting to think that modern Chinese relations with South Korea began with a botched hijacking.

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.

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