Thirty years ago today, on September 1, 1983, an unspeakable act of war occurred in the lonely skies over the Pacific Ocean. Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (usually known as KAL 007), a fully loaded 747 jetliner, was shot down in Russian airspace by a Soviet SU-15 fighter plane. All 269 people on board–every one of them a civilian–were killed. The shootdown of KAL 007, accidental but outrageously avoidable, caused probably the single most tense crisis of the Cold War between the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the end of tensions following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
The story of KAL 007 is very complicated. The plane left New York’s JFK International Airport just after midnight on August 31, bound on a marathon trans-Pacific flight to Seoul, South Korea, with a refueling stop at Anchorage, Alaska. Most people do not realize that there were actually two flights that took off on this route, traveling very close to one another; KAL 015 was KAL 007s “sister flight,” and arrived in Seoul without incident. An unusually large number of U.S. official dignitaries were on board these planes, headed for a political ceremony designed to highlight cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea. A sitting Congressman, Lawrence McDonald, was aboard KAL 007. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina was on KAL 015. Amazingly, former President Richard Nixon was supposed to be on board the doomed flight, but something came up and he canceled his trip at the last minute.
Something strange happened to KAL 007 not long after it took off from Anchorage. A discrepancy in its automatic guidance system and autopilot carried the plane off course, but showed no indication–we think–to the pilots. As a result of this course error, the plane strayed over the Kamchatka Peninsula, which was restricted Soviet airspace. The Russians tracked the plane for more than an hour, trying to figure out whether it was a civilian or military plane. It left Soviet airspace, then re-entered over Sakhalin Island. The Soviet air commander ultimately classified the plane as a military target and ordered jets to intercept.
Most families had nothing left of their loved ones except their shoes–a grim reminder of what had happened.
The Soviet fighter pilot in the SU-15 fired a missile. After the USSR fell in 1991, this pilot said that he knew the plane was an airliner, but still believed it could have been a civilian plane retooled for military use. Shot down for violating Soviet airspace, ironically KAL 007 came down in international waters. Human remains washed up on beaches in Japan. Passengers’ shoes were recovered by Soviet searchers, many of them the shoes of children; these eerie reminders were later returned to the victims’ families. Although the Soviets denied finding any wreckage underwater, in fact they did–but the plane had virtually disintegrated, and over 500 feet below the surface of the Pacific what was left of KAL 007 and its human cargo was in very small pieces.
The shootdown created a firestorm of international condemnation against the USSR. President Ronald Reagan, who was already unpopular for deploying U.S. nuclear missiles in Europe against the wishes of the vast majority of public opinion of the countries in which they were stationed, ratcheted up the rhetoric to what some thought were dangerous levels. The Soviets were totally intransigent, denying any wrongdoing and accusing the U.S. of provoking it. The issue was still unresolved when the Soviet Union collapsed 8 years later. Beginning in the 1990s, the new Russian President Boris Yeltsin tried to smooth relations between Russia and South Korea, by, among other things, releasing the KAL 007 flight recorders which the USSR had recovered back in 1983.
The destruction of KAL 007 remains one of the most cruel and tragic incidents of the entire Cold War. The Soviets simply didn’t have enough safeguards in place to distinguish between threatening and non-threatening aircraft, and everybody was keyed up so tightly that an accidental tragedy on this order was probably inevitable sooner or later. Nonetheless, there was no comfort available to the families of the 296 victims who died that day–real people who were casualties of a cold war that was supposed to have been fought without bullets, but which somehow managed to destroy innocent life just the same as a hot war.
There is a memorial to the KAL 007 victims in Cape Soya, Japan.