Remembering Korean Air Lines Flight 007

Remembering Another Downed Civilian Aircraft

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Why you should care

History can offer clues on how to deal with horrible tragedy, and avoid an even worse one.

I’d been in Korea for about half a year, mostly with my head in the books, learning to speak Korean. As the news began to filter through on September 1, 1983, I glued my ear to the chunky, German shortwave radio I’d brought with me, switching between the BBC and the Voice of America.

It was hard to believe and made no sense. A Korean passenger plane en route from New York — a Boeing 747 with 269 passengers and crew — had disappeared.

Yesterday’s horrible downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine brought the memory rushing back.

It was hard to believe and made no sense.

Was that possible? Actually, the “disappearance” phase of the KAL news story was extremely short. It took mere hours before then-Secretary of State George Shultz in Washington denounced the Russians for shooting down an unarmed civilian aircraft in the middle of the night. It took another five days of Soviet-style prevarication — old-fashioned lies — for the Russians to admit to the deed, saying the aircraft had flown into restricted Soviet airspace and was on a spy mission.

People with signs outdoors during the day

Remembering Another Downed Civilian Aircraft

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The downing of KAL 007 was like a right hook to the temple. Koreans had long harbored a deep sense of historical victimhood along with an almost prickly pride for what they’d accomplished. Colonized and brutalized by Japan, utterly destroyed by the Korean War, suffering under military dictatorship for over 20 years, and yet prospering — far outpacing their stagnant brethren to the north. They believed they were ready to throw off military rule, and could actually be better at anything than almost anybody. (I often thought they were right, because they just never gave up.)

As Ukraine well understands, living on Russia’s periphery can be dangerous. Korea’s division into North and South was the product of early Cold War competition, and Korea remained painfully dependent on U.S. military might for survival. Even so, the Russians showed they could shoot down its airliner, and not even the mighty U.S. could do much about it.

Just five weeks after KAL 007 came down, a North Korean bomb in Rangoon just missed its target — South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan — but killed 21, including three cabinet officials and a host of senior economic advisers, actually some young brilliant men who put aside scruples about working for a dictator out of a belief they were helping to build their nation.

The truth about KAL 007 dribbled out slowly for over a decade…

Koreans do not mourn quietly. They wail. They cry. But not for long. Rather quickly, other similarly brilliant young men took the places of those who died. And just four years later, the Korean people threw off dictatorship and began a democratic process that has continued to grow stronger.

Of course, they are still living at the dangerous eastern periphery of the old Soviet empire.

The truth about KAL 007 dribbled out slowly for over a decade as perhaps only Cold War tales can, between the eventual release of Soviet archives, turning over of the black box, and actual statements from the pilot who shot it down.

Some weeks after the tragedy, the Russians turned over shoes from passengers to an American-Japanese delegation. A total of 213 were collected, including those recovered from the sea by Japan. While a small number of body parts washed up on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, bodies were never recovered.

The Soviet pilot, Major Genadi Osipovich, it turns out, knew he was firing at a civilian aircraft, or at least what looked like one. He just never reported that to the commanders who ordered him to shoot it down.

“We shot down the plane legally,” he said in an interview eight years after the event. “Later we began to lie about small details: The plane was supposedly flying without running lights or strobe light, that tracer bullets were fired or that I had radio contact with them on the emergency frequency of 121.5 megahertz.”

While most view the incident as a tragic accident of the Cold War, conspiracy theories (for example, that the flight really was on a spy mission) have never completely died.

The full truth about the downing of Malaysia Air flight 17 over Ukraine on Thursday might come out today or tomorrow … or never. The truth is only ever a partial salve for loss, which Malaysia is no doubt feeling intensely following the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in March, carrying 239 passengers and crew.

People crying at airport in black and white

Family members of part of the passengers of the KAL Flight 007

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Perhaps the most important outcome of the tragedy of KAL 007 is what didn’t happen. War. It could have. That’s the challenge that Vice President Joe Biden pointed to yesterday when, referring to Ukraine, he mentioned the “possible repurcussions that can flow beyond from this, beyond the tragic loss of life.”

Lesser incidents have sparked wars.



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