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From the Monitor's archives: Shootdown of Korean Air Flight KAL007

Some of the Monitor's coverage of the 1983 destruction of Korean Air Flight KAL007 by a Soviet fighter jet.

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Debris from Malaysia Air Flight MH17 in a field near Donetsk, Ukraine, on June 23 2014.

Maxim Zmeyev

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The destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight KAL007 by a Soviet fighter jet off the coast of Sakhalin Island on Sept. 1 1983 nearly triggered an international crisis, much as the disputed destruction of Malaysia Air Flight MH17 near the Russia-Ukraine border risks doing today.

Below are excerpts from the Monitor's coverage of the incident, its aftermath, and the debunking of conspiracy theories propagated about the destruction of the plane.

Soviet Downing of jetliner shocks world

By Donald Southerland, Washington, Sept. 2 1983

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Soviet destruction of a civilian South Korean jetliner has cast a pall over US relations with the Soviet Union and could harden attitudes toward Moscow around the world.

In a news conference Thursday, Secretary of State George Shultz said that a Soviet MIG fighter plane shot down the Korean Air Lines 747 jumbo jet over Soviet territory near Sakhalin Island. There were 269 people aboard, including US Rep. Lawrence McDonald (D) of Georgia. There were no known survivors.

''We can see no excuse whatsoever for this appalling act,'' Mr. Shultz said. He noted that the Soviet charge d'affaires in Washington was called in to hear an American statement of ''strong concern'' and a demand for an explanation from the Soviet Union. President Reagan was described as deeply disturbed and concerned.

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Restrained US reaction may earn political points

By Donald Southerland, Washington, Sept. 7 1983

President Reagan's restrained reaction to the Soviet downing of a South Korean airliner has angered some of his most fervent conservative supporters. But the President's combination of hard rhetoric and reasoned action is likely to win political points for him where it may count a good deal more - among the centrists, or middle-of-the-road people, both in the United States and in Western Europe.

In the US, it may help Reagan shake off the image that some people hold of a man all too willing to seek confrontation with the Soviets, and dangerously so. And should he seek to run in next year's presidential election, that could add up to more votes for the President.

A public opinion survey sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and published earlier this year showed that while most Americans distrust the Soviet Union, they continue to support arms control agreements and other forms of cooperation with the Soviets. Majorities of those polled opposed grain embargoes and prohibitions against scientific exchanges with the Soviets.

'Enter our space, you get shot,' say most Russians on the street

By Ned Temko, Moscow, Sept. 8 1983

If I may be frank, we were absolutely right to shoot down the Korean plane, '' said the stocky, middle-aged man near Moscow's central farm market. And what of the 269 passengers aboard?

''Look. Tell your readers that they should be absolutely clear on one thing. On issues like this we are very tough. You enter our airspace like this, and you get shot down.

''And that's the way things should be. . . . And if you want to test us, test us, and you will surely not be the winner.''

Most Muscovites strolling under an Indian summer sun Wednesday seemed generally to agree. And where days earlier pedestrians were loath to discuss the air disaster, a crescendo of (anti-American) accounts in the Soviet news media seems to have loosened unofficial tongues as well.

Moscow tries to shift spotlight from Flight 7

By Ned Temko, Moscow, Sept. 14 1983

The Kremlin is moving to redirect world attention from the Korean Air Lines disaster to the stymied European arms talks in Geneva. Amid remarks from officials suggesting that the airline issue is being deliberately used by the Americans to devalue the negotiations, the Soviets announced Tuesday a news conference on arms issues by two ranking officials.

The conference is set for today, and is expected to be held by Georgi Korninenko, a first deputy foreign minister, and Sergei Akhromeyev, first deputy chief of staff of the Soviet military.

The Geneva talks are in effect running against time: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is committed to start basing new United States missiles in Western Europe at the end of the year if the talks produce no palatable compromise before then.

Soviet officials, though declining to go into great detail about Wednesday's news conference, implied it was unlikely a new Soviet negotiating initiative would be announced.

Instead, the officials suggested Tuesday, the aim would be to emphasize and expound upon the most recent Soviet move - the announcement last month by Soviet leader Yuri Andropov that Moscow would scrap, not just reposition, any of its modern SS-20 rockets limited by an eventual accord.

The Soviets have deployed several of the easily mobile SS-20s, each with three warheads, since the late 1970s. NATO says the planned deployment of new American rockets is in response to them.

Lessons from KAL 007 on diplomacy and sanctions

By Lawrence J. Goodrich, Sept. 1, 1988

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.

Soviet Story on KAL Shootdown Unravels With Transcripts' Release

Lawrence J. Goodrich, Boston, Oct. 23, 1992

THE documents that the Russian government handed over to South Korean and United States officials last week regarding the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on Sept. 1, 1983, confirm most of the version of events the US, Japan, and South Korea have given the world about that tragedy. They also confirm that the story told by Soviet officials at the time was a coverup and a lie.

The Soviets defended their downing of the plane, which killed all 269 people aboard, including Koreans, Japanese, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and others, by claiming to have proof that the civilian airliner was on a secret spy mission organized by US intelligence. They claimed that the plane failed to respond to repeated radio warnings and warning tracer shots, and that the plane took evasive action when challenged by Soviet fighter planes. Lastly, they charged that the plane had changed course several times while in Soviet airspace.

Soviet officials also said that they had not located the plane's "black box," or flight data and cockpit recorders, and that they had turned over all debris from the airplane to the US and Japan.

The US and other Western nations repeatedly denied the espionage charges.

Ironically, it was the now-independent newspaper Izvestia in post-Soviet Russia that lifted the lid on the coverup.

Izvestia's investigation over the past year found the wreckage from the flight and revealed that the Soviets had located the voice recorder in October 1983. Another paper, Rossiskiye Vesti, in August printed what it said was the transcript of the Sept. 2, 1983, Politburo meeting that discussed how to respond to the shootdown.

The transcript of the cockpit voice recorder released by Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Thursday covers the last 30 minutes of KAL 007. It shows that the flight was proceeding normally, with no indication that the crew knew it was off course or that it was being pursued by Soviet fighters. It carried on normal communications with air traffic controllers in Tokyo and a following KAL flight. The only ambiguity comes 16 minutes into the tape: A crew member asks, "What does it look like?" But there is no thing to indicate what he was referring to.

About 24 minutes into the transcript, the pilot asks Tokyo for permission to ascend from 33,000 feet to 35,000 feet. This action, which slowed the plane down, caused a pursuing Soviet fighter to shoot past, according to previous evidence given by US and Soviet officials. But there is no indication that the crew ever saw the Soviet warplane.

The first indication of trouble comes 29 minutes into the tape. An alarm signal sounds and crew members shout "Get up!," followed by "I can't!" Emergency announcements in Korean, English, and Japanese instruct the passengers to put on their seat belts and oxygen masks. The plane radios Tokyo: "Don't break communications. Give directions. We have rapid [de]compression."

As Tokyo calls out the plane's call letters, the tape ends. The plane has been destroyed. The transcript indicates that the crew never knew what hit it.

Among the documents released last week is a letter from then-KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov to then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, in which the KGB advises against releasing the contents of the flight and data recorders because they are too ambiguous: In other words, they did not prove the Soviet case.

Another KGB document says that the plane's crew "for more than five hours kept the route unchanged, did not make any alterations in the flight path, and did not take measures to leave Soviet airspace," thus demolishing arguments advanced by the Soviets and several theorists that the plane zigzagged its way across Soviet territory. The documents imply that the Soviets never had any evidence that the plane was on an espionage mission.


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