|A plane takes off from Gimpo International Airport. (Book Quest)|
|The cover of reporter Lee Hwang’s recently published book, “Airport Reportage” (Book Quest)|
Today’s Incheon International Airport boasts great size and spacious duty-free shops, but things were quite different just 40-some years ago.
Local reporter Lee Hwang’s latest book, “Airport Reportage,” chronicles the history of local airports, from the very first one on Yeouido, Seoul, to the one in Incheon today. Throughout his 40-year career as a journalist, Lee covered events that took place in airports, witnessing countless historic moments.
Lee joined local daily Hankook Ilbo in 1970 and was sent to the pressroom of Gimpo International Airport, which was the main international airport at the time, in the same year. Getting to the airport was an ordeal in the 1970s; there were no airport limousine buses, and it took almost half a day to get there from Lee’s office in Anguk-dong, central Seoul. He’d have to take a cab or a vehicle provided by his company, enduring many hours of unpaved road. Lee spent most of his time at the airports, documenting the events that took place there.
The book is filled with interesting and sometimes heartbreaking stories Lee witnessed or heard while working as a reporter. In the 1980s, Lee would often see the arrival of a number of dead bodies from the Middle East. They were Korean men who took jobs as construction laborers overseas to support their families back home. According to Lee, about 1,000 men flew to the Middle East every day, making up 10 percent of daily airport users at the time. Many of them died of injuries or harsh labor, and their bodies were sent back to their motherland. “There were about 10 coffins arriving at the airport every month,” Lee writes in the book.
“What was strange was that their coffins looked very expensive. I wondered how these laborers, who were mostly poor, could afford them. I was stunned to discover later that the bodies of the laborers were in fact used by local undertakers who wanted to smuggle in high-quality coffins from overseas. Upon their arrival, their bodies were moved to cheaper coffins, and the quality ones were immediately sold to the rich.”
|Korean Air flight attendants in 1969 (Book Quest)|
Lee also writes about Jo Min-ja, Korea’s first flight attendant. She joined Korean National Airlines (KNA), the first commercial cargo and passenger air carrier in Korea, in 1953, at the age of 24. The only job training she received was first-aid, which she learned from a U.S. Army surgeon who lived in Korea at the time. Jo wasn’t given a uniform; she purchased her own suits to wear on duty. Jo retired at the age of 34 after spending 9,500 hours in the air. After her retirement, she suffered from a chronic illness for a long time, writes Lee.
The 1970s and ‘80s were also an era of emigration boom. Lee remembers seeing hundreds of emigrants at the airport during the period, many of them carrying yellow envelopes in their hands. “Carrying a yellow envelope meant the person was heading to the U.S.,” writes Lee. “The U.S. immigration office required them to submit a copy of their X-rays upon their arrival to the country. The immigrants would carry the copies in the envelope.”
According to the book, about 100 people a day flew to foreign countries at the time ― many thinking that moving to another country would give them a better life. The process was a lot easier than it is now; “For many, all they needed was an invitation from their relatives who had already moved to the country they wanted to emigrate to,” writes Lee.
For the same reason, ethnic Korean men who had American or Japanese citizenships were very popular in the local marriage market, as marrying them automatically guaranteed a life overseas, according to the book. Unlike now, those who married men with foreign citizenship in Korea had to wait a significant amount of time in their home country before receiving the granting documents. “A lot of ordinary people admired those who lived overseas,” Lee writes in the book. “Things were certainly different from how people think nowadays.”
Lee writes that many men abused the system after marrying in Korea, by becoming completely out of reach after flying to the U.S. or Japan ahead of their spouse. In the book, Lee recounts a case of a young woman who was a victim of a marriage fraud. The woman, who was said to be the daughter of a local professor, showed up at the airport every day, always donning pretty dresses, in case her out-of-reach husband returned to Korea ― for five straight years.
“Years later I heard a rumor that she died after many years of waiting,” Lee writes. “Stories like this are unthinkable nowadays, but it did actually happen often back in the days.”
The reporter also shares an airport record he found about former Korean sex slaves, who were coerced into sexual slavery at front-line Japanese military brothels during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule. Many of them remained in Japan even after Korea was liberated in 1945, as they felt extremely humiliated and too ashamed to return.
However, some of them returned for brief visits to make a living as peddlers, selling little things like Japanese-made umbrellas, cookies and coffee beans in Korea. “According to the airport customs office, there were about 600 former sex slaves who brought those goods to Korea to sell,“ Lee writes. “They chose those little goods because they rarely became a problem while going through customs at the airport. One of those women in fact visited Korea about 100 times a year, according to the records.”
Lee also writes about the bombing of Korean Air flight 858 in 1987, about the day the late President Kim Dae-jung was sent to exile to the U.S. through Gimpo International Airport in 1982, as well as the tragic end of Shin Yong-wook, the founding chairman of Korean National Airlines, who committed suicide after one of his planes was hijacked by North Koreans. Although the passengers were eventually returned, his plane was kept by the North.
However, the real gem of this book is Lee’s documentation of the ordinary people in the 1970s and ‘80s, including the local tourists who would visit the airport just to see the property, the scene of crying babies going for overseas adoption, and the tearful family reunions for the men who returned from construction jobs in the Middle East.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com)