Pilot Ki-ok Kwon
Korea’s First Female Pilot
Ki-ok Kwon was born on January 11th 1901 in the Sangsugu village, Pyeongyang, North Korea. She was the youngest of two siblings born to Don-gak Kwon and Mun-myeong Jang. As a young girl she had the opportunity to see American stunt pilot Art Smith, the same pilot who inspired the creator of Honda. After the experience, she dreamed of flying herself. She held on to her dream and used it as fuel not only to accomplish such a great feat but also to contribute to her nation as a spectacular Freedom Fighter.
Her schooling begun with Sunghyeon Elementary School in 1913 In 1916 She enrolled in Soongeui Girl’s School in Pyeongyang and joined the Songjookhui, a group of students who secretly participated in anti-Japanese activities. Through this she made Taegukgi, or Korean national flags, along with other girls fighting for the independence of their nation. Following her graduation in 1919, she participated in March 1st Independence movement. She did everything from helping to hand out Korean flags to promoting morale among the protesters. She really was a leader in the fight for independence.
As with many others who participated in the March 1st Independence movement, she was imprisoned for her actions. While she only spent three weeks in jail the first time she was punished, when she was released she did not stop in her devotion to serving her country. She continued to raise funds for the Korean Patriotic Women’s Association, a group which supported Korea’s liberation and centered around women, along with fellow members like Maria Kim and Esther Hwang. She was caught and this time she was sentenced to six months of imprisonment. When she was released she could no longer remain in Korea and decided to go to ‘The Provisional Government of Korea’ which was located in Shanghai, China.
When leaving Korea, she travelled to Shanghai on a rickety fishing boat and then to Hangzhou. Following this journey, she began to further her education and in 1921 enrolled in Hongdao Women’s School (弘道女中) in order to learn Chinese and English. Despite her program being a four year track she was capable of finishing it in just two years.
In order to further her dream to become a pilot she entered the Republic of China Airforce School in Yunnan with the support and recommendation of the Shanghai-based Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea. She was praised for her ability to face the training that at the time was thought would be extremely difficult for women as even men struggled with its physical demands. Graduating as the only woman in her class and the first Korean woman to learn to fly she showed to the world, which doubted women’s capabilities, that women are extraordinarily capable. She ultimately logged over 7000 flight hours. Serving in the Chinese military air force, in 1940, she received the rank of lieutenant colonel. While she never got to fight the Japanese in the air as she intended, she fought in another way as she worked for the provisional government with her husband Lee Sang-Jeong.
With the end of World War II and the independence that she so fought for achieved Ki-ok Kwon returned to Korea. There she was crucial in the creation of the Republic of Korea Air Force and even continued to serve the country through the Korean war as a member of South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense. She received the presidential commendation in 1968 and the Order of Merit for National Foundation in 1977.
She passed away on April 19th 1988 and was put to rest in the National Cemetery, which is located in Dongjak-gu, Seoul.
In Korea there is a concept around the beginning of the 20th century known as the “New Woman” (Shin Yeoseong). Many women during this time where instrumental in changing Korea’s ideas about women and therein earned the title of “New Women.” Women such as Hyeseok Na, Maria Kim, and Wonju Kim would all be considered “New Women” because they chose to take control of their own lives, making extraordinary contributions to their country. It could be said that Ki-ok Kwon is one of the most influential “New Women” and should be recognized by all for the mark she has left on not only the Korean peninsula but on this entire world.