February 15, 1970: North Korea, giving less than 20 minutes notification, allowed 31 of the 50 people on board the Korean Airlines plane diverted just over two months ago to walk home through a Panmujon checkpoint Saturday.
The passengers were reported “happy” by UNC spokesperson and reporters at Freedom Bridge, near the truce village. After identification, the passengers were given coffee, milk, cigarettes, and fresh clothes sent by their families.
Both pilots, stewardesses, and eight passengers who were on the KAL flight originally bound from Kangnung to Seoul still remain in North Korea – with no explanation yet available.
The two passengers who were under investigation and suspected of involvement in the plane’s Dec. 11 diversion are among the eight passengers still in North Korea. Police say they are renewing investigations of all the passengers now either remaining or being kept in North Korea.
“No documents were signed for their release. No words were exchanged at time of their turnover,” a brief UNC announcement later said.
After brief medical checkups and change of clothes, the 39 passengers, with tight ROK CIA security, were loaded onto two buses for their ride back to Seoul.
When they crossed Freedom Bridge, both buses were surrounded by reporters and about 100 villagers. Another bus with many of the passengers’ relatives and families stood just feet away and for perhaps half a minute the returned passengers and families exchanged waves and shouts, tears and smiles.
Reporters ran alongside the slowly moving bus, yelling questions and snapping pictures.
A passenger told a Stars and Stripes reporter that Cho Chang-hee, one of the passengers suspected by ROK police and CIA of possible involvement in the YS-11’s diversion, was the only person missing from the group after they remained in North Korea. Another passenger told several reporters that the group, while in North Korea, had met daily.
Once the 39 passengers arrived in Seoul, they were taken to an undisclosed spot for questioning by ROK government and CIA agents.
After the release of the passengers, Saturday Shin Bum-shik, minister of culture and information, said:
“It is … strongly demanded that North Korea repatriate, immediately and unconditionally, the rest of the persons and cago, together with the plane.”
Shin also said: “Taking a lesson from this instance, we must now arm ourselves with vigilant anti-communism. We should make every possible effort to prepare ourselves fully and build up our strength so that we can meet and smash any North Korean provocative and aggressive act at any further time.
North Koreans, on the other hand, said the release of the ROK passengers is “manifestation of the compatriotic love and humanitarianism which we maintain consistently.” The report said the passengers, while in North Korea, were under the “warm care of the North Korean government and that they expressed profound gtaitude for this.”