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Superpower football; KAL Flight 7 - the legal aftermath

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The shocking callousness of the Soviet Union in shooting down the Korean airliner seems to have obscured the facts of life and international law as applied to the North Pacific air corridor bordering the Soviet Union.

The Russians have repeatedly made it clear that they will, in the last resort , shoot down aircraft of any character overlying prohibited military zones if they fail to obey instructions or warning signals to land. Article I of the Chicago Convention of 1944, as well as other principles of international law, give nations unfettered sovereignty over the airspace above their land areas and territorial waters so that there is no question of the Soviet right to establish such zones.

By any standard of humanity the Soviet Union had no right to shoot down an intruder before ascertaining its character, the probable cause of the intrusion, and the possibility of achieving its exit without the use of force. But this standard has not yet crystallized into international law. Moreover, Soviet border law and internal instructions with respect to prohibited military zones make no distinction between categories of intrusions, whether civilian or military, deliberate or unintentional. The transcripts show no effort by the Soviet air defense authorities to determine the identity of the airliner. The only test the Soviet interceptors used was IFF (identification, friend or foe) - an electronic test limited to determining whether a target is their own aircraft.

This was a disaster waiting to happen. Air Korea already had a history of monumental navigational error and erratic piloting. Civilian air control over the corridor is vested in personnel of Asian nationalities not noted for individual initiative or the disposition and capacity to freely communicate. There seems to have been no provision for continuous monitoring. All this in an air corridor populated by 20,000 civilian flights a year and flanked for 600 miles by the top secret military installations of a security-conscious civilian and military bureaucracy.

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