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Lessons from KAL 007 on diplomacy and sanctions

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FIVE years ago this week, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing 269 people and provoking worldwide outrage. In the last two years, critics have asserted that the United States misused the KAL affair, made Soviet behavior seem worse than it was, and needlessly brought US-Soviet relations to the danger level.

These critics have focused on statements that senior US officials made soon after the shootdown, and not on the package of measures the US adopted in response to the Soviet action. Yet the US response was far more moderate and measured than the critics assert. At the time, the US measures subjected the Reagan White House to a barrage of complaints from its traditional conservative supporters. But the package represented far more effective diplomacy than that used in answer to previous Soviet actions.

To understand the government's response to the shootdown, one must go back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In reaction to that move, then-President Carter announced a wide range of economic and political sanctions. These included withdrawal of the SALT II Treaty from the ratification process, a US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, a partial embargo on US grain sales to the Soviets, and suspension of Aeroflot flights to New York City. The US then tried to rally its allies behind this package and encouraged them to adopt similar measures. This campaign had little success. It had the unfortunate result of focusing public opinion on the bickering among the Western allies instead of on the Soviet invasion.

This pattern was repeated after martial law was declared in Poland in 1981. President Reagan slapped a series of new sanctions on the Soviets, including bans on certain export licenses, suspension of talks to renew the expiring bilateral maritime agreement, postponement of talks on a new grain agreement, an end to Aeroflot flights to Washington, and non-renewal of several science and technology agreements. Again, the US tried to rally its allies behind the sanctions package; and once again, their refusal to go along became a major news story.

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