Sorrow From the Sky ( Part 2 )Korean Air Lines Flight 007 originated at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, departing just after midnight local time Aug. 31, 1983. After stopping at Anchorage, Alaska, to refuel, it pressed on to Seoul.
But not long after leaving Anchorage, the jumbo jet veered off course. Soon it was 322 kilometers (200 miles) removed from its flight plan, cruising Soviet territory, where airliners never wandered. Instead of heading south, then across northern Japan and into Korea, the jetliner drifted severely southwest.
What happened is not completely clear. It’s likely that something went very wrong with the navigational system.
The pilot of 007, Chun Byung-in, had flown the Anchorage-Seoul route 83 times. The rest of the crew was highly experienced. But someone at some point simply neglected to check headings and, just as astonishing, no one notified the airliner that it had badly strayed.
Theories about 007 popped up like crocuses. At least seven books appeared about the tragedy. Some blamed intelligence screw-ups. Some said Korean Air pilots were paid to snoop on the Soviet Union. Some said the United States organized the whole awful scenario.
There was speculation, too, that the plane hadn’t been fired upon. More than one theorist said the 747 was forced to land at Sakhalin island, where everyone aboard was incarcerated. Others said many survived a water landing, were scooped up by Russian ships and sent to prison camps, where they remain to this day.
In the race to point fingers at conspirators, human error got overlooked. Flight 007 likely never would have happened if not for a series of catastrophic mistakes.
Still, fury refused to subside, particularly for the 75 Koreans on the flight, for the 63 Americans. No emotion was shown by the Soviet pilot who pulled the trigger. Years later, raising cucumbers and sipping vodka in retirement, he talked for the first time, expressing no regrets for his deed. The big airliner was spying, he erased it. Besides, ground control encouraged him to launch the missiles. Gennadi Osipovich's one complaint: He received a bonus of only 200 rubles (about $260) for scoring the hit. He'd been expecting more.
The Cold War has ended. The “evil empire” of the Soviet Union is gone. But the boiling blood and hard lessons of Sept. 1, 1983 remain for those who lived through that hell of 20 years ago. Lost amid the great rage and the wacko postulations are the stories -- of grief and pain, yes, but also of peace and promise.
She died without a soulmate. He decided to fix that.
Toward the end of August 1983, my daughter Hyeong-sim, writing from the United States, sent her mother and me a letter, which she always did when she landed somewhere with Korean Air Lines. In the letter, which turned out be her last, she ended with, “Mom and Dad, be healthy forever.”
I remember thinking those words sounded like a good-bye, and that bothered me. I even had a premonition that something bad was going to happen.
Hyeong-sim was a flight attendant aboard Flight 007. At 23, she had swapped shifts with another stewardess to be home Sept. 1. On that day I was having breakfast at my home in Busan before going to work when I saw the breaking news on television. I froze; I could not believe a word that the anchor was saying. Before I knew it, I was driving like crazy with my wife, Lee Bun-rye, to catch a plane to Seoul.
On the flight, I thought how happy Hyeong-sim had been to wear her uniform and to fly all over the world. The youngest of four, with three brothers, Hyeong-sim was the plum of my eye. And it was not just me ― she always had boys trailing her, trying in vain to win her favor. She was truly a belle, 167 centimeters tall (about 5 feet, 5 inches), with a dazzling smile. In 1982, she was runner-up in the Miss Korea beauty pageant’s Busan competition.
On the day she had an interview with Korean Air, she also had another interview with a talent agency. Without hesitating, she chose to be a flight attendant, a job she had craved since childhood. My wife always says if only Hyeong-sim had picked being an actress she would be alive today. But Hyeong-sim was firm in her decision ― she liked traveling and meeting new people.
When I got to Seoul I went immediately to Korean Air Lines’ downtown office. Pandemonium ruled there. Hysterical families were milling about, wailing loudly. To this day I can still hear those cries. I stayed in Seoul for several days, meeting with other bereaved families. Back home, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I just gulped soju until everything blurred. Now and then I would come out of my stupor and imagine I saw Hyeong-sim opening the sliding door of my house and saying, “Mom and dad, I’m home.”
Hardest for me to accept was that Hyeong-sim died before meeting her soulmate. When I met with other grieving families, I came to know Kim Hwang-bok, who lost his youngest son, Beom-cheon, 27, on Flight 007. The junior Mr. Kim worked for a U.S. shipping company, and was on his way back home for a blind date arranged by his parents.
Korean Air Lines had divided bereaved families into groups, and the senior Kim and I were in the same group. We shared our misery ― the senior Kim was also suffering from nightmares, barely able to eat. A Korean Air staff member decided that the junior Mr. Kim and my daughter ought to marry. Though not common, this post-death wedding ceremony, called yeonghon gyeolhonsik, periodically is used to soothe damaged spirits.
I certainly did not want Hyeong-sim to get married to just anybody. Hyeong-sim had high standards in men. While working as a flight attendant, she had several prominent male passengers propose marriage, but Hyeong-sim turned them all down. In photographs his father had shown me, the junior Mr. Kim in his navy uniform was tall, handsome, sincere-looking. In fact, I was sure that he and Hyeong-sim would have talked on the plane as passenger and flight attendant during the more than 12-hour flight.
The senior Mr. Kim was a Buddhist, and so we agreed on a wedding in Geumyong Temple in Gyeonggi province. We had an engagement ceremony Sept. 7 and set the date for the wedding after all the 007 memorials were over. Though it was a marriage between spirits, I wanted it to be like a normal wedding. The wedding was held over three days in early November 1983. We made human models out of straw wrapped in cotton cloth, each standing about 50 centimeters (20 inches), and dressed the models in wedding clothes. On the wedding night, we lay the two figures on the floor of a candlelighted room. More than 30 family members gathered to watch. There was much food and many comforting words. What was missing, of course, was the actual couple.
Instead of the bride and groom, the senior Mr. Kim and I exchanged gold rings. When I put the ring on his finger, I burst into tears. He held my hand, saying, “My dear Mr. Cho, believe me, I’m going to take good care of my daughter-in-law.”
Afterward, my family and the Kims got together several times until Hyeong-sim’s father-in-law died in 1998 and her mother-in-law in 2000. At least once a year on Sept. 1 we gathered in Cheonan, South Chungcheong province, where a memorial for Flight 007 stands.
Time does not heal everything. I’ve learned that you can never overcome grief; you only get accustomed to it. Life has taught me that if your children die before you, you can still marry them -- after you bury them in your heart.
The power of music can provide unexpected inspiration.
Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” a piano sonata in F minor, is one of the most demanding pieces of music there is. When published in the early 19th century, the opus was at first incomprehensible. In fact, it went unplayed for more than three decades. As a young piano student, I wanted to master “Appassionata,” but I felt I never would unless I had the best teacher possible.
That teacher, I came to realize, had to be Oh Jeong-ju, a piano professor at Seoul National University, who also taught privately.
In 1969, when I was a 15-year-old student at Ewha Girls’ High School, I worked up the courage to contact Professor Oh. With great trepidation, I called her on the telephone, my knees wobbling, my voice cracking. Somehow I got through that conversation, and my mother and I visited Ms. Oh at her house in Seongbuk-dong for an audition.
At the time, I had just won the grand prize at the Sudo Concours, a Seoul musical competition, but I knew I had a lot further to go.
At age 38, Professor Oh was already greatly respected in the academic world. She was known for her emphasis on tone and rhythm, and for her strictness. When I walked into her studio, a stately, confident woman greeted me. I was so nervous I could barely look her in the eye.
Like our phone conversation, I got through the audition and she agreed to teach me. But being a pupil of Professor Oh’s was never easy. If I played a note that displeased her, which I did a lot at first, she would shake her head and plunk the keyboard with one finger. “You must feel the music,” she would admonish.
In 1972, I entered Seoul National University, where I continued to study with Professor Oh. She was as tough there as ever. “Stretch you fingers,” she commanded.
And so I did, and in time I found I could reach keys with one hand that I never thought possible. Soon I began trying “Appassionata.” She was generous with her praise of my attempts, but also critical when she needed to be. “The music!” she urged. “Feel it!”
During my college days, I came to know her better. She would shop with me for clothes at Pyeonghwa Market. I became her good friend. It wasn’t surprising that in the early 1980s I became a piano teacher, and now teach at Sejong University in Gunja-dong. She pushed me to be a better performer, which made me a better teacher.
In August 1983, Professor Oh invited me to her house for lunch. She told me she was leaving soon for the United States, where she would help her son enroll at Harvard University. Her husband, a professor of chemistry at Korea University, would stay here, she said. We chatted about many things, including, of course, music.
“I’ll see you soon,” she said as we parted.
“Have a wonderful trip,” I answered.
I was home watching television when I heard that a Korean Air Lines plane had been shot down. Later that day, a pupil who had studied with Professor Oh telephoned me, terribly upset. “Professor Oh was on that plane!” she gasped.
I couldn’t believe it. The idea that she might be dead did not occur to me at all. The news seemed so unreal. But soon the hard reality set in. I felt as if I had lost a sister.
Students learn a lot from their teachers. This is especially true in music, where often an intense, one-on-one relationship exists; you respect the teacher to the utmost. Professor Oh was my mentor, yet we could talk about almost anything -- even my friends’ boyfriends.
Every month, Professor Oh’s former students gather for a reunion. The meetings take place at someone’s home or at a restaurant. We don’t have a specific agenda. We just chat about the old days when she was among us and the direction our lives have taken since. A scholarship bearing her name was organized in 1984 and is awarded to a senior piano student at Seoul National University.
To pay tribute to Professor Oh, her friends and former students organized two concerts. One was held in 1993 marking the 10th anniversary of her death and another this past April, marking the 20th. The proceeds were donated to Joseph Hospital, to which Professor Oh provided much help as a volunteer and where she had given benefit concerts.
Beethoven wrote “Appassionata” when he was seriously depressed. Because he was going deaf, he had become nearly suicidal. Creating this piece, music historians say, pulled him through those black times.
Today, whenever I walk on stage to play “Appassionata,” or any other piece, I think of dear Professor Oh. Indeed, as I strike the first note, she comes alive and I can see her face. As I play on I can almost hear her bang on the keyboard with one finger.
There’s a tendency to be melancholy during “Appassionata.” But I never feel sad when I perform it. In fact, a smile crosses my face because I know one thing to be absolutely true: I can feel the music.
by Toby Smith
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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