FLIGHT INTO DARKNESS
With those nine words 269 people aboard Korean Air Lines flight 007 were condemned to a fiery death 35,000 feet above the Sea of Japan last week, unleashing a worldwide wave of revulsion and rage. The terse military exchange in the middle of the night between a ground control installation and an aging, but still potent, Soviet interceptor gave the pilot the command to unleash at least two awesomely destructive heat-seeking missiles at the heart of the 747 aircraft. The incident was, declared South Korea’s iron-fisted President Chun DooHwan, “a sin against God and man—an indescribable barbarity.” In the aftermath, the most compelling single question was why an unarmed, off-course civilian airliner was so ruthlessly destroyed. But the Soviets, facing their
Soviet ground control: “Take aim at the target. ”
SU-15 pilot: “Aim taken. ”
Ground control: “Fire. ”
Pilot: “Fired. ”
most disastrous international blackballing since the invasion of Afghanistan, refused to accept responsibility for the attack last week, though they did report sightings of bodies near the crash location at the weekend. Said External Affairs Minister Allan MacEachen: “We just cannot have Canadian citizens killed in this way and go on as if nothing had happened.” A restrained Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau added, “Until we know what final explanation [the Soviets] give and we have made a judgment on that explanation, it is premature to say what we are going to do about it.”
Beyond the immediate horror, world leaders tried to grapple with the consequences of the tragedy. Relations between East and West were severely strained, but the precise nature of possible sanctions that the United States, Canada, Japan and other nations might invoke against the Soviets was not clear last week. U.S. President Ronald Reagan offered no clues, instead asking darkly, “What can be the scope of legitimate mutual discourse with a state whose values permit such atrocities?” The Soviets responded that the civilian
plane was taking part in a spy mission and that the U.S. monitoring stations in the area could have contacted Soviet officials and the aircraft itself if the Americans wanted to avert a disaster. The official Soviet news agency, TASS, said only that a warning shot had been fired and that the KAL aircraft had then veered away without making radio contact. But that statement did nothing to alleviate the international outcry. Huge demonstrations were staged in New York, Seoul and other major cities around the world. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s carefully cultivated image as an international peacemaker was clearly tarnished. Said Senator Charles Percy, chairman of the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee: “This tragedy will have a chilling effect on U.S.-Soviet relations and Soviet relations with every civilized nation on earth.”
Flight 007 was just one of five weekly KAL flights from New York to Seoul. Each stops in Anchorage to refuel before continuing on the last leg of the journey, along a polar air corridor known as Bravo 20. CP Air, for one, flies the route six times a week and it has not had trouble during the 34 years that it
has used the flight path. CP Air spokesman Michael Dukelow said last week that the Korean jetliner had “a very wide margin of error” between its flight path and restricted Soviet air space. But Bravo 20 does lie within 50 km of the Soviet-controlled Kuril Islands and within 135 km of Sakhalin. It also has the most favorable winds in the region and as a result it is the most economical route to use. Dukelow said that if a commercial airliner strays off course, computerized navigational equipment should automatically make
corrections. Should all three of the computer systems fail—a one-in-a-million possibility—alarms are set off and the flight crew can resort to manual and visual control or land at the nearest airstrip. Before takeoff pilots must program the computerized equipment with detailed route co-ordinates, which provide a printed read-out for verification in CP Air’s 747s and those of other airlines as well. Then, there is another reading of the flight instructions by the engineer, or second officer, and that is matched against the computer co-ordinates. Moreover, navigation maps supplied to international carriers have a warning printed in large letters over the Sakhalin Islands near where the plane reportedly went down. It reads: “WARNING, aircraft infringing on Non-Free Flying Territory may be fired on without warning.”
Normal procedures for the interception of planes that stray illegally into another nation’s airspace (which corresponds to the 12-nautical-mile limit on the seas) are established by the rules of the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to which 151 countries, including the Soviet Union, belong. Any aircraft that is intercepted can be legally escorted out of the airspace or it can be ordered— either by radio contact or by internationally accepted visual signals—to land. If the pilots do not share a common language, internationally accepted English code is used: Wilco (understand, will comply), Can Not (unable to comply), Mayday (I am in distress), and Hijack (I have been hijacked).
Those procedures may have been attempted during the KAL intercept, but U.S. and Japanese sources with access
to the sophisticated surveillance radars sweeping the strategic Soviet stronghold paint a detailed portrait. According to U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who confirmed the worst fears of the victims’ relatives 17 hours after the SU-15 launched its missiles, at 1 a.m. Japan Standard Time (12:26 p.m. EDT) on Aug. 31, Soviet radar picked up an unidentified aircraft approaching Soviet airspace. For the next two hours, as many as eight Soviet fighter aircraft tracked the intruder as it skirted the Kamchatka peninsula, flew through restricted airspace over the Kuril Islands and out over the Sea of Okhotsk toward Sakhalin. At 3:12 a Soviet pilot informed ground control that he had made visual contact with the 747. At 3:15 Capt. Chun Pyung In, the 45-year-old KAL veteran with more than 10,000 hours flying experience, radioed air traffic control at Narita Airport just outside Tokyo that he intended to climb from 33,000 to 35,000 feet. Six minutes later, the Soviet pilot told his controllers that the KAL plane was cruising at 34,000 feet, and two minutes later Chun reported to Narita that he was levelling off at 35,000 feet. At 3:26, the Soviet pilot reported that he had hit his target. According to Japanese officials, at exactly that moment Chun radioed in. “KE007” was all that was decipherable, and radar contact ended minutes later as the pieces of the big jet plunged into the ocean.
For its part, the Soviet Union was slow to respond. But an official statement issued on Friday was unapologetic. After an emergency Politburo meeting, a carefully worded document said that “leading circles” in the Soviet Union regretted the loss of life, but it
condemned “those who consciously or as a result of criminal disregard have allowed the death of people and are now trying to use this occurrence for unseemly political ends.” The fact that the United States was tracking the KAL aircraft so closely proved that it was not a normal civilian flight, the Soviets said. There was, however, no acknowledgment that Flight 007 had been shot down, although a TASS report, which was read on all three Soviet channels, did say that warning shots had been fired.
The networks also showed a map of the plane’s flight path over Soviet territory and they reported that contact with the aircraft was later lost. Initially, TASS had reported only that an unidentified aircraft had violated Soviet airspace, had made no radio contact with air traffic control and did not respond to Soviet fighters’ attempts to “assist” it. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko later told Shultz in a note that there were “signs of a possible crash” near Sakhalin. The Soviet version was not entirely inaccurate. Japanese radar showed that Flight 007 was wildly off course, even though Chun reported that he was over Hokkaido. And a fellow KAL pilot lent credence to the Soviet claim that the flight did not respond by radio. KAL Capt. S.S. Yang said in Anchorage last week that when his flight, 008, crossed paths with KAL 007, he was unable to make radio contact. Yang said that he overheard the Anchorage radio tower having communications trouble with 007. “His  radio was very garbled,” said Yang. “I tried to relay, but he could not hear me. I tried to call him several times.” Several Canadian
pilots said that it is often difficult to find compatible radio frequencies in that area.
Clearly it was possible that the Korean plane strayed into Soviet airspace as part of the continuing game of cat and mouse played by the superpowers around the world. The purpose of the exercise is not to take photographs but to provoke a response. The radio traffic and radar emissions from the other side’s activities are closely monitored to measure reaction time and the numbers and types of planes that take to the air to intercept. The Soviets play the game in the Canadian Arctic and on both
coasts as often as four times a month, and U.S. planes frequently escort Aeroflot and Cubana Airlines planes back into international airspace after they have drifted too close to sensitive U.S. naval bases, such as Norfolk, Va., home of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.
Soviet Far East forces are some of the principal U.S. targets, and the Sea of Okhotsk holds particular interest because that is where Soviet missile-carrying submarines of the Pacific fleet are based. In revealing details of the incident, the United States made clear the scope and sophistication of the U.S. equipment used to monitor Soviet military activity in the Pacific region north of Japan and its ability to intercept Soviet communications. There was even speculation that one reason for the delay in announcing the fate of the airliner was Washington’s fear of making public too many details of its operations. To that end, the state department refused to disclose precisely how it had so many details about the affair. But informants said that the news of the tragic event was delivered to the state department by the National Security Agency, the secret eyes and ears of the United States. Situated at Fort George Meade, in Maryland, about 30 km north of Washington, the NSA is commonly called the “Puzzle Palace” by the approximately 120,000 people who work for the agency worldwide. It is the most sophisticated electronic spy centre in the world. Although the NSA’s budget is classified, it was estimated to be $15 billion a year at recent congressional hearings. At the same hearings it was revealed that the NSA supports roughly 2,000 separate “listening posts” around the world. Those computerized posts are
equipped as ground stations with the most advanced radio monitoring devices and have direct access to the fleet of NSA satellites which are on constant space patrol. The NSA has listening posts in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and along the Chinese border with the Soviet Union.
Vice-President George Bush, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, recently negotiated an expansion of NSA posts in China in return for a sharing of all information gathered. And those ground posts in Japan and China would have intercepted the Soviets’ first reactions to the approach last week of the Korean airliner. Then, the message that at least eight Soviet jets had scrambled to intercept KAL 007 would have been instantly relayed, via satellite, to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. “You can assume,” an intelligence source in Washington told Maclean's, “that a decoded English translation of the Soviet pilot’s conversation with his ground control was on the duty officer’s desk at NSA within 10 minutes of the pilot speaking.” It is also likely that from the initial stages of the crisis, NSA satellites were directed to photograph the area constantly, and photographs may exist of the missiles striking the airliner. What is not clear is whether the Americans tried to warn the KAL aircraft that it was off course, and, if not, why not.
The most important NSA post in the KAL case is at Wakkanai, on the northern tip of Hokkaido. Run by the Japanese Self-Defence Force, the base is located on La Perouse Strait, a narrow choke point which is a vital passageway for the huge Soviet Pacific fleet, stationed at Vladivostok. Wakkanai had primary responsibility for tracking the doomed flight, but members of the crew of a small squid-fishing boat, Chidori Maru No. 58, provided the first report of the disaster to Wakkanai when they telephoned to say that they had seen the sky “turn orange” at 3:30 a.m. Thursday while they were fishing near Sakhalin.
The object of the elaborate operation is a desolate land of volcanoes, tundra and military power. The Soviet Pacific fleet, with 150 surface ships, based largely at Vladivostok, and about 130 submarines—many based in Petropavlovsk—is one subject of keen U.S. interest, but so are Soviet missile tests that take place on the Kamchatka peninsula and the deployment of increasingly sophisticated aircraft on the Kurils. “Nothing flies from, over or near Sakhalin that we don’t monitor,” said one U.S. intelligence officer. The region is off limits to foreigners, and even Soviet citizens need special permission to travel to the area.
A U.S. defence department report is-
sued earlier this year stated that the Soviets have “undertaken a considerable military buildup” in the islands. The report said that the principal reason for the buildup is “to provide the Soviets with an assured sanctuary in the Sea of Okhotsk for Delta-class ballistic missile submarines.” Last week the Japan Defence Agency reported that the Soviets had flown 10 MiG-23 jet fighters to an airfield on the island of Etorofu. That diversion may have been a reaction to U.S. plans to station
F-16 fighters at Misawa Air Base, near the northern end of Japan’s Honshu Island, starting in 1985.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the disaster was the fact that the plane’s destruction was kept secret from the world for almost 17 hours. Korean and Japanese relatives of pas-
sengers were overjoyed at lunchtime on Thursday (Korean time) when the South Korean foreign ministry reported that the plane “had not exploded or crashed but was known to have been forced to land” on Sakhalin Island. The report originated with the CIA and it added that all passengers and crewmen on board were “safe,” but in Soviet hands. The same erroneous message reached relatives and friends of Canadian and U.S. passengers. Thomas Hendrie, the father of Mary Jane Hendrie,
25, of Sault Ste. Marie, one of the nine Canadians aboard, told Maclean's: “A friend told us last night that the plane had gone missing. We went through two hours of agony before our MP in Ottawa, Ron Irwin, notified us that the plane had landed safely on the Soviet island.” After the true facts emerged, Liberal
MP Irwin told Maclean’s: “I have just come from the Hendrie house. I’m still stunned. The whole thing is so grotesque it does not seem like it really happened.”
In Seoul, the jubilation began to turn to anguish two hours after the first announcement, when the Soviet government denied that the plane had landed. Later in the day, Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe said that “it appears likely” that the plane was shot down. It was left to Shultz to formally break the news to the world.
Reagan promptly cut short his California vacation to return to Washington to confer with national security advisers over possible U.S. responses to the Soviet action. Late Friday, he accused Moscow of lying about its role in the disappearance of the Korean plane. “What can be said about Soviet credibility when they so flagrantly lie about such a heinous act?” he said. In a strongly worded statement, Reagan cast Cold War-like chills, saying, “While events in Afghanistan and elsewhere have left few illusions about the willingness of the Soviet Union to advance its interest through violence and intimidation, all of us had hoped that certain irreducible standards of civilized behavior [would be honored].” He added, “What can we think of a regime that so broadly trumpets its vision of peace and global disarmament and yet so callously and quickly commits a terrorist act to sacrifice the lives of innocent human beings?”
There are not many retaliatory measures available to the Reagan administration. There were the shrill calls from the far right (whose standard bearer and leader of the ultraconservative John Birch Society, Congressman Lawrence McDonald, was on the flight) for severance of diplomatic relations with
the U.S.S.R. And many leading Americans called on Shultz to cancel his meeting this week with Gromyko, including former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Senator Robert Dole, vice-chairman of the U.S. delegation to Madrid. Others, such as Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, called for the cancellation of Soviet commercial air rights in the United States.
The 3,200-member Canadian Airline Pilots’
Association called for the revocation of Soviet
landing rights for refueling in Gander, Nfld. And while few disagreed with Kissinger’s assessment that Washington must take some decisive action, it is doubtful that arms talks will be suspended or that the Americans’ recently signed grain deal will be shelved. As Don Zagoria, professor of government at Hunter College in New York, said: “We don’t deal with the Russians because they are nice guys. We deal with them precisely because we know they are a threat.” The new five-year grain accord calls for a 50-per-cent increase in the amount of U.S. grain the Soviets can buy and includes a promise that an embargo, like the one imposed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, will not again be employed. The cancellation of the pact would not be a popular domestic move, but the administration may change its plans to sell Moscow
surplus dairy products.
For its part, the United Nations was not expected to take any effective action. Acting on requests by the United States, South Korea, Japan and Canada, the UN convened an emergency session of the Security Council. In the strongest denunciation of the Soviet Union since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1960, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Charles Lichenstein called the attack on the airliner “wanton, calculated, deliberate murder.” Kyung-Won Kim, head of the South
Korean observer mission (South Korea is not a member of the UN) called on Moscow for a full apology, compensation and permission for impartial observers and South Korean officials to visit the crash site. And though the United States may supply the council with evidence, possibly recordings of the exchanges between the Soviet pilot and his ground control, it was doubtful at week’s end that the council would have the required nine votes from its 15 members for a condemnation of the Soviet action.
MacEachen has demanded compensation for the families of the passengers on the flight, but the trail through the courts may be as confusing as the entire tragic incident. Only the International Court of Justice in the Hague is empowered to rule on such a case, but in the past the Soviet Union has ignored its rulings. The aircraft was insured against acts of war. According to KAL’s lawyer, the plane itself was insured for $35 million, with a liability coverage totalling $400 million. South Korea is party to an international insurance convention that limits payments to $75,000 per passenger.
But money will offer little consolation to the victims’ relatives. Along with the rest of the world they want answers. They want to know why 269 defenceless people had to die over the Sea of Japan on a civilian flight in the darkness of night. The real explanation for that awesome tragedy will not likely ever emerge.