Korean Air (Daehan Hanggong (대한 항공 in Korean)) began in 1962 as Korean Air Lines and at that time was owned by the South Korean Government. It replaced the former Korean carrier Korean National Airlines. In 1969 KAL was acquired by the Hanjin Transport Group and became privately owned.

International flights to Hong Kong and China were flown with Boeing 707s until the airline was privatized. In 1973, KAL introduced Boeing 747s on their Pacific routes and started a European service to Paris using the 707s. A new blue-top livery was introduced in 1984 along with its current name: Korean Air. In 1986 Korean Air became the first airline to use the new MD-11 to supplement its new fleet of Boeing 747-400s. As Korean Air grew, it assigned its fleet of MD-11 jets to freighter-only use in addition to 747 freighters.

In August 1983, Soviet fighter planes shot down Korean Air Flight KAL-007, a Boeing 747, which was on a John F. Kennedy International Airport-Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport-Kimpo International Airport flight, on the Anchorage to Kimpo segment. All 269 people on board were killed. The civilian airliner went hundreds of miles off course and passed over restricted Siberian territory. The event was denounced by the US Reagan administration as a deliberate and wanton act of murder by an "evil empire".

Its safety record rates a B", the second highest grade possible, according to Air Rankings Online (see rankings at Airline Rankings).