March 8, 2024


Did you hear about Yi So-Yeon (이소연) ?

Hallyu introduces many actors, singers, dancers and recently we are finally learning of some amazing bussiness women from Korea (hand on hear though, I have learned of those from my “true crime” videos I subscribe to, so …are they really introduced outside of Korea? You tell me!)

However, there are some pretty amazing women in Korea AND Korean history that unless you make the effort to learn of them, you probably keep living not knowing they exist.

With all the respect she deserves, I am going to pass on introducing the big Queen Seondeok. We have books on her, quite rightfully. Because she ruled! In both traditional and modern sense of the word.

I want to speak of a woman that was able to break the glass ceiling of the patriarchal society. I will shortly introduce you to the first female astronaut of South Korea.


Yi Soyeon was born in Gwangju, South Korea in June 1978. She got her masters degree in Mechanical Engineering at KAIST.

KAIST stands for Korean Advanced institute of Science and Technology.

For simple comparism, I believe we can say it’s a South Korean MIT. Lee was one of the two finalists chosen on December 25, 2006 through the Korean Astronaut program. With her co-finalist, Yi traveled to Russia, where she trained and took tests under the supervision of Russian Federal Space Agency. The results of those put her male co-finalist, Ko, ahead. Ko San was the one chosen to go into the space, not Yi SoYeon.

However, the RFSA at the last minute asked for Ko San to be replaced by Yi. For Ko violated regulations several times at a Russian training center by removing sensitive reading materials and mailing one back to Korea. And so it happened, the firt South Korean female astronaut was sent to space on April 8, 2008.

Now, I am personally super happy that happened, but I also feel really bad for Ko. This si just my personal opinion, but I sincerely doubt he went ahead to extract information on Russian space program on his own accord. I feel like he was ordered to do so and he paid the price for it.

Never the less, Yi went to space and on her mission she carried out 18 experiments for the Korean Aerspace Reseach Institute, she conducted the interviews and discussions with the media.

Her experiments included monitoring how space-life changes the behavior and genome of the fruitflies, growth of plants in space, study of the behaviour of her own heart, and the effects of gravity change on the pressure in her eye and shape of her face.  She also observed the Earth, and in particular the movement of dust storms from China to Korea.

On her way back to Earth, on 19th of April 2008, the vehicle malfunctioned. Thankfully, all three people on-board survived the rough landing back on Earth. After her flight, Yi worked as a researcher at KARI and as Korea’s space ambassador with Ko San.

In 2009, Yi became the first astronaut to attend the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program (SSP) at NASA Ames Research Center, held in conjunction with the inaugural class of the Singularity University (SU) Graduate Studies Program (GSP).

Because she achieved all this so early in her career, Yi was listed as one of the Fifteen Asian Scientists To Watch by Asian Scientist Magazine  in May 2011.

In August 2014 she announced her retirement from the KARI (Korean Aerospace Research Institute). She was getting married, leaving to the US and up to do some more academics. She recieved MBA at the University of California, Berkley HAAS School of Business. She joined the Association of Spaceflight Professionals. Beginning 2016 she taught Engineering Physics at the Everett Commnity College in Washington and alsto lectured at the University of Washington.

She since lived in Washington, United States.

She was “just” a guest of Russian government on the flight of Soyuz TMA-12. South Korea paid Russia for the opportunity of their astronaut to travel with them. But, does that beat the fact that Yi So-Yeong became only the thrid women in the world to be the first national of their own country in space? You tell me. I wouldn’t go if Russia paid me.

About the Author

Lenka Kim was born and raised in Prague, the fairytale-like capital of the Czech Republic. She has a BA degree in Korean Language and Literature and spent time as an exchange student at SunKyunKwan University. She wrote her thesis on Korean movies and how they reflect changes in current Korean society. She was accepted to the MA course but she couldn't resist Korea calling her back, so she decided to move to Korea instead. Now she lives in Korea with her husband and son, enjoying the rollercoaster ride of being a working mom in a multi-cultural family.

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