Wednesday, April 13, 2016

K is for Kwon Ki-ok - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

Kwon Ki-ok 1901-1988
It was 1919 in Pyongyang's Sangsugu Village, Korea. Imagine if you will, eighteen-year-old Kwon Ki-ok, who had just noticed her friends huddled over something in secret, in deep discussion. Cries of freedom began to rise up from the group, growing louder and louder, when suddenly, they lifted the Korean flag into the air and began waving it exuberantly.

Kwon learned that there was to be a demonstration at 2 pm that very afternoon. It would take place all over Korea at the same time. Kwon must have tingled inside as she learned more about the event. A group of students in Seoul had written an independence proclamation, demanding Korea's freedom from Japan. The statement would be read out loud everywhere at 2 pm. Would she join them? Yes, of course she would! 

Korea had been under Japanese colonial rule since 1905. Forced labor, lack of jobs, diminished education, unfair laws destructive to Korean culture were all part of the oppression many felt. The event became known as the March 1st Movement. An estimated 2,000,000 Koreans participated in more than 1,500 demonstrations throughout the country, but a massacre by Japanese police and military resulted (only 553 Koreans were reported killed). Another 12,000 Koreans received jail sentences and Kwon Ki-ok was one of them. Kwon spent three weeks in jail for her participation. After her release, she became involved with the Korean Patriotic Women's Association, and again arrested, spent six months in prison. After her release, Kwon fled to China, exiled. 


Kwon Ki-ok (2nd from right) with a patriotic women's society
Ⓒ jeonghyeju
Kwon Ki-ok was born in 1901 in the Korean city she had fled, the second of two children. Educated in Pyongyang’s Sunghyeon School, she had done well, graduating in 1918. One of her most memorable experiences growing up in Pyongyang was the year an American stunt pilot, Art Smith, actually came to her village to perform. In 1917, Smith put on an aerobatic show in the air that Kwon would never forget. It was the day she began to seriously dream about flying. 

Graduating class 1918, Sunhyeon Normal School.   
Kwon - 3rd down, on left.     
Ⓒ jeonghyeju


American Stunt pilot Art Smith. He inspired Kwon to fly in 1917
Now far away from home and in a country where she could barely speak the language, Kwon wasn’t sure what to do. Certainly, flying was no longer a possibility. She couldn’t speak Chinese or English. Help came when she enrolled in Hongdao Women's School, a school run by an American missionary. Kwon learned to speak both languages over the next two years, and finally had some of the credentials she needed. Aviation schools were not open to women in China, but Kwon received help from the brother of a doctor. In 1923, she successfully enrolled in the Republic of China Air Force School in Yunnan. She was the only woman in her class. Graduating in 1925, she became China’s first female pilot in history. Kwon did well in aviation, stationed first in Beijing and later in Nanjing. By 1940, Kwon had achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.


Kwon Ki-ok (2nd from left) 1935. Ready to fly in Shenzhen, China.
With Italian instructor. Ⓒ jeonghyeju
[Note: It's not clear from the Korean translation I found what exactly Kwon did in the Air Force to free Korea from Japan, but one translation 'hints' at a bombing of Japan's Imperial Palace and you can be certain there is more. Her combat role in the Korean War also does not translate well, but there again, she had to have been involved. There is mention she also married in 1937, but her husband's background is unclear].

In 1945, after World War II ended, Korea received its independence. Kwon returned home, where she helped found the Republic of Korea Air Force. She also held the record as Korea’s first female aviator. During the Korean War, she served her country as a member of South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense. Kwon retired after the war.

Special honors received:
-Presidential commendation (South Korea) (1968)
-Order of Merit for National Foundation (Korea) (1977)



Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwon_Ki-ok; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_1st_Movement; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_Smith_%28pilot%29
http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0000301350

24 comments:

  1. My this lady started at an early age. Wonderful to read.
    Yvonne.

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    1. She had a pretty full life. Unfortunately, some I couldn't figure out. The best records online were in either Chinese or Korean!

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  2. What an interesting series and what a courageous woman! I found you through the A to Z Challenge. I'm participating in the challenge as well with a Nancy Drew and sailing theme.

    Cheers - Ellen | http://thecynicalsailor.blogspot.com/2016/04/a-is-for-anchor-nancy-drew-investigates.html

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    1. Hi. Thanks for visiting! Your theme sounds fascinating. Trying there next :) Happy blogging...

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  3. Amazing she learned two languages in such a short period of time. And then after the war she retired; wondered if she missed it.

    betty

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    1. Hi, Betty. Yes, agree she must have been pretty smart! As I said above, information on her was not as thorough as I would have liked. I wonder if it was cultural that she retired young. Thanks!

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  4. What an amazing woman. Even if she didn't actually bomb the Imperial Palace, I can imagine her doing it.

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    1. Hi Lee. We're on the same wave length. She knew at a young age she wanted to be involved in the rebellion.

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  5. Wow! This lady is so inspirational! From a young age she fought for her country ...That's really commendable!

    Cheers,
    Srivi - AtoZChallenge
    K for Kite | Twitter

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    1. And so many lost their lives too. I knew nothing of this event in history at first. It helps me understand some of the tension that still exists between Asian countries today.

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  6. So glad to hear she survived and retired! There seem to be many pilots during that era who didn't.

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    1. Me, too. Given the missing holes in her story online, we may never have heard anything about her.

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  7. Another fascinating story :-) Thanks!

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  8. Almost half way through the list. Thanks for reading Kenda!

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  9. Thanks Sharon, amazing what can be achieved when you put your mind to it, as she did. Lovely read.

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    1. She had some incredible obstacles to overcome too. Thanks Susan!

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  10. I have been amazed at all these women. Before your blog posts I could have named Earhart and ????, uh, no one.

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    1. ha-ha. I wasn't much better. I'm surprised there were so many. For most letters I had quite the choice. Thanks for commenting!

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  11. Thanks so much for sharing this story. This is something you come across very rarely :-)

    @JazzFeathers
    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

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    1. I thought her story was important from a part of the world most of us know so little. Thanks Sarah!

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  12. Fascinating woman; well told story and very inspirational! Thanks!

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    1. Thank you. I hope more learn about Kwon. There wasn't much to glean from either. I had to piece some facts together!

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  13. She is one courageous woman for sure

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    1. Yes, perhaps more than others because she was fighting for her country most of her life. I wish I knew more. Thanks!

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