Monday, September 01, 2008
The Mystery of Flight KAL007
This article of mine appears in The First Post.
The EU leaders gathering in Brussels today to discuss the growing tensions with Russia have chosen an ominous day on which to meet. It is exactly 25 years since Soviet fighter planes shot down a Korean Airlines Boeing 747, with the loss of life of all 269 passengers and crew.
It marked the nadir in East-West relations in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan called it "a crime against humanity (that) must never be forgotten". And even a quarter of a century later, important questions regarding the incident remain unanswered.
Flight KAL007 was en route from New York to Seoul when, 10 minutes after a refuelling stop in Alaska, it started to deviate from its course and head north towards Russian airspace. The plane continued some 200 miles from its planned flight path. Off the Soviet island of Sakhalin, home to several Soviet military installations, it was shot down by Russian fighters armed with air-to-air missiles.
The Kremlin maintained that the plane had twice violated their airspace. They insisted the airliner had been on a spying mission and their fighter pilots had fired warning shots, but the Korean Airlines pilot did not respond.
Amid international outcry at the Soviet action, it was suggested that a mistake must have been made when programming the plane's inertial navigation system. But if the pilot was genuinely unaware that he was over Soviet airspace, why did he not respond to the Soviet warning shots?
Other mysteries remain: not least, whatever happened to the bodies of the flight's passengers and crew? There was a total absence of human remains - or luggage and
other belongings - on the surface of the sea in the 225 square miles of probable impact area, and when divers eventually located the wreckage of the aircraft weeks later, the remains of only 10 passengers were found.
The 'decompression theory' - that passengers had been sucked out of the plane and scattered over a wider area - appeared the most feasible explanation for the absence of bodies, until the black box recording revealed that the rupture caused by the Russian missile would have been too small for anyone to be sucked out.
It seems that both the Soviets and the US had good cause to keep the background to the tragedy shrouded in mystery. On the very same day that Flight KA007 was shot down, it transpired that the Soviets were secretly test-launching their new SS25 missile, in violation of the SALT2 arms treaty. The missile was launched from northwest Russia and was due to come down in a target range on the peninsula of Kamchatka, over which Flight KAL007 had strayed.
At the same time, a US spy plane was in the area - just 75 miles away from Flight KAL007's route - with a mission to capture the telemetry of the SS-25. In short, if KAL007's deviation into Soviet airspace was a genuine navigational error, it could not have picked a worse day for it.
The incident proved a turning point in the Cold War. The US broke off its arms treaty negotiations and the widespread disgust at the Soviet action paved the way for the deployment of a new round of US Pershing missiles in Europe. By shooting down Flight KAL007, the USSR provided its enemies with a huge propaganda coup - and helped bring into action a chain of events which contributed to its own demise.