It was the depths of the Cold War. Thirty years ago this month, 269 people aboard Korean Airlines Flight 007 died in the sub-zero skies over North Asia. On 1 September 1983 a Soviet fighter shot the airliner down after it entered Soviet airspace over Sakhalin Island.
The world reacted with outrage. National mourning swept South Korea. On board KAL 007 were a majority of South Koreans, 61 Americans - including US Congressman Rep. Lawrence McDonald - and 28 Japanese citizens. In response, President Ronald Reagan called it “an act of barbarism.”
But the truth which later emerged was more complex, not just the action of trigger-happy Soviets. KAL 007 had been seriously off course. A UN investigation later concluded that the airliner was downed after an error made on its own flight deck, as well as by Soviet air defenses.
Thirty years after the fate of KAL 007 shows what happens when military and civil calculations get out of hand. In 1983, those closest to the action thought they knew best, shot first, asked questions later. With a regional crisis still evolving in Syria - over the disputed use of chemical weapons - this tragic chain of events has sharp relevance.
KAL 007’s loss was magnified by West/East paranoia. In the early hours of 1 September 1983, three Soviet SU-15 fighters scrambled from their airbase on Sakhalin. They intercepted an unidentified aircraft, illuminated by flashing navigation lights. The mystery aircraft was KAL 007. It had entered Soviet airspace over Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East, flown on over the Sea of Okhotsk, and was approaching Sakhalin.
The Soviets believed their target to be a US Navy Boeing RC-135 spy plane (with a similar radar signature to a commercial jet airliner). Hours earlier, an RC-135 had indeed patrolled off Sakhalin. The Soviets thought they had a confirmed military intruder.
Yet the Soviet interception was shambolic. The SU-15s were vectored in badly. The lead aircraft - piloted by Major Gennady Osipovich – overshot his target. He used cannon rounds to gain the other pilots’ attention. No response.
Osipovich then watched the aircraft climb away. Interpreting this as evasion, he fired two missiles at it at 3:26am. In clinical tones Osipovich radioed that “the target is destroyed.” KAL 007 took twelve minutes to hit the Pacific southwest of Sakhalin. There were no survivors.
Immediately, the Cold War froze over. Reagan called it a “massacre” and “a crime against humanity.” His words followed his speech of 8 March 1983 labeling the Soviet Union as “an evil empire.” He suggested the Soviets knew the target was a commercial airliner.
The Soviet response was badly handled. For a week the Kremlin denied responsibility. Tit-for-tat condemnation continued for months. Soviet Premier Andropov denounced the US for a “sophisticated provocation.” The USSR was condemned by many of the world’s democracies.
This shocking incident occurred at a moment of high Cold War tension. The loss of KAL 007 stirred a toxic international brew. The NATO alliance was facing the Soviets down. From March 1983, President Reagan promoted his new Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as Star Wars. A US invasion of the island of Grenada - against a Pro-Cuban communist coup - followed in October. Reagan also deployed cruise and Pershing nuclear missiles in Western Europe from November against the threat posed by Soviet SS 20 missiles.
The same month, the Soviets walked out of missile talks in Geneva. Declassified Soviet documents (released in May 2013) show that in 1983 the Soviets were convinced a US nuclear strike against them was likely. The end of the USSR was approaching. The regime’s bankrupt political and economic system could not keep pace with US military spending. Aged Soviet leaders Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko came and went, as the Soviet Union’s economic arteries hardened beyond saving. After the arrival of reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, and revolutions in Eastern Europe from 1989, the Soviet Union gasped its last breath in 1991.
In the years since, more details on KAL 007 have emerged. Today, expert consensus is that KAL 007’s crew - commanded that morning by 45 year old Captain Chun Byung – made a critical error in their own cockpit.
KAL 007’s route took it from New York to Anchorage to refuel. It departed Anchorage for Seoul. The Korean pilots then put their aircraft on autopilot. But the 747 immediately drifted 12 miles off course. The drift continued until the plane was 100 miles (245 degrees) off its original route. This put it on track for the Soviet Union, not Seoul.
In 1993 the United Nations International Civil Aviation Authority issued its own report. It was based on KAL 007’s flight recorder data retrieved by the Soviets years before, but only released by the Russians in 1992. Critically, the flight crew had not activated the correct inertial navigation switch after departure from Anchorage, or it had malfunctioned.
Instead, KAL 007 flew on for five hours until it was mistaken for a US RC-135. The Korean crew appeared oblivious to the danger throughout.
The loss of KAL 007 has been the subject of conspiracy theories and technical analysis ever since.
Russia has consistently defended the Soviet pilots’ actions as tragic but necessary, given KAL 007’s incursion. Perhaps this is because memories of this period remain uncomfortable in Vladimir Putin’s Moscow. When the Soviet pilot announced that ‘the target is destroyed,’ his sclerotic regime had only eight years left before its own funeral.
In turn, the US acknowledges that its spy plane had been in the area but was not involved. Afterwards, Boeing redesigned its 747 autopilot system. The US-designed Global Positioning System (GPS) now dominates world airline navigation.
The Korean flight crew were blamed for incompetence. The jury is still out on their precise actions and will likely remain so. In March 1984, Korean Airlines re-branded itself with new livery as Korean Air.
This month KAL 007 is again the subject of quiet reflection. The bereaved families run memorial groups and post on their own Facebook page. On 23 August, a service took place on Sakhalin, at Nevelsk. Another was held at Wakkanai on Japan’s Hokkaido coast, close to where personal effects from KAL 007’s passengers were borne in by the tide.
Today the events of 1983 leave disturbing contemporary echoes. The Cold War between Russia and the West may be long gone, but the rhetoric still mirrors 1983. Only this week, Russian leader Vladimir Putin cited US evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria as a ’provocation.’ US President Obama promptly called the chemical attack ‘barbarism.’
In South Korea, the legacy is only mourning.
Ronan Thomas is a British correspondent who was based in Moscow and Seoul in the 1990s. Another version of this story was published last week in the Moscow Times.