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.

Son of Man Kidnapped By North Korea Advocates for His Release

The Joong Ang Ilbo has an extensive profile on the life of Hwang In-cheol who is the son of a 32-year old MBC producer that was kidnapped by North Korea on a hijacked plane.  You can read about this story at my prior DMZ Flashpoints posting.  This hijacking is just one of the many terrorist incidents the Kim regime has never been held accountable for and to this day some how remains off of the US’s state sponsors of terrorism list:

When Hwang In-cheol was 2 years old, his father disappeared.

“Maybe he’ll come back on Christmas Day,” Hwang’s mother said.

Hwang counted down the days, imagining his father coming through the door laden down with presents.

It didn’t happen.

“Maybe next Christmas,” his mother said.

It wasn’t until Hwang was in the third grade that his father’s brother decided he should know the truth.

Hwang Won was a 32-year-old producer for Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) based in Gangwon. On Dec. 11, 1969, he boarded a Korean Air flight from Gangneung, Gangwon, for Gimpo International Airport in Seoul to attend an MBC internal meeting. A senior colleague who was supposed to attend was busy. He ordered Hwang to fill in for him.

Ten minutes after takeoff, a North Korean spy hijacked the YS-11 aircraft and the 50 other people on it, all South Koreans, to Wonsan, some 207 kilometers (128.6 miles) east of Pyongyang, the North’s capital.

The producer left behind his wife, a 3-month-old daughter and 2-year-old Hwang In-cheol.

It was the second – and last – instance of a South Korean aircraft being hijacked by the North. On Feb. 16, 1958, a Korean Air flight from Busan to Seoul was abducted midway with 34 people on board, including a few foreigners.  [Joong Ang Ilbo]

You can read much more at the link.

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.

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