The most serious moment of East-West tension since President Ronald Reagan's election followed the shooting down in the Sea of Japan during the early hours of Sept. 1, 1983, of a Korean airliner, KAL 007, en route from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, which had blundered badly off course over Soviet air space. A Japanese station at Misawa, 360 miles north of Tokyo, listened as the pilot of a Soviet interceptor aircraft fired two missiles, then announced at 3:26 a.m. Tokyo time: "The target is destroyed."
At first, Misawa wondered if it had been eavesdropping on a Soviet exercise where the missile firing had been simulated. Several hours later, however, it realized it had heard the last moments in the flight of KAL 007. All 269 of the passengers and crew were killed.
The KAL 007 tragedy derived from the incompetence of both the Red Air Force and Korean Air Lines, combined, in the Soviet case, with disregard for human life. Five years earlier, when another Boeing 747 fo Korean Air Lines, KAL 902, badly off course on a flight from Paris to Seoul, had crossed the Soviet frontier near Murmansk, Soviet air defense had lost track of it over the heavily fortified Kola Peninsula. It was finally intercepted and forced to land on a frozen lake three hundred miles south of Murmansk, after being hit, but not destroyed, by a heat-seeking missile, which killed two of its passengers and wounded thirteen others.
Soviet air defenses have been described, with some justice, as "the agricultural sector of the Soviet armed forces." On the night of Aug. 31-Sept. 1, 1983, eight of the 11 tracking stations on the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island, overflown by KAL 007, were not functioning properly. The regional command lacked experience in dealing with serious violations of Soviet airspace, and responded with a mixture of confusion and brutality.
Khabarovsk air force command made several attempts to seek instructions from Moscow. After a confused exchange of messages (monitored by the Americans and Japanese) Khabarovsk reminded the command center on Sakhalin Island of the rules requiring visual identification of the intruder before shooting it down. Sakhalin ignored these rules.
KAL 007 was destroyed by missiles fired by a Soviet fighter pilot who failed to identify what he was shooting at. At various stages in the crisis some in the confused chain of command that dealt with the intruder believed they were dealing not with a civilian 747 but with a U.S. intelligence-gathering aircraft.
The official Soviet reaction to the shoot-down was initially to deny it had happened. Confusion in Moscow over the handling of the tragedy was so great that, for three days, neither the Soviet embassy nor the KGB residency in London received any guidance on what explanation to offer. Then, on Sept. 4, three "flash" telegrams from KGB headquarters arrived at the residency; the embassy simultaneously received similar communications from the foreign ministry.
The first telegram claimed that KAL 007 was being used by the Reagan Administration to whip up anti-Soviet hysteria. This campaign had become so virulent that the residency was instructed to coordinate measures with the ambassador, the Soviet military intelligence agency and the party representative to protect Soviet nationals, buildings, ships and aircraft against attack. The second and third telegrams were intended to pin the blame on the Americans and Koreans.
KGB headquarters insisted there was close military and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Korean Air Lines. It had to be assumed that KAL 007 had been performing an intelligence role. None of the telegrams dispatched by headquarters on Sept. 4 acknowledged directly that a Soviet interceptor had shot down KAL 007--though they implied as much. More significant was that they did not explain whether the Soviet air force had known it was attacking a civilian airliner.
Two or three days later, headquarters sent out two further telegrams claiming the Americans and Japanese were in full radio contact with KAL 007 during its intrusion into Soviet air space and knew its exact position throughout. At one point, it was falsely claimed, the pilot had radioed: "We're going over Kamchatka."
At a two-hour press conference in Moscow on Sept. 9, the chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces announced that a Soviet state commission had "irrefutably proved that the intrusion of the plane of the South Korean Air Lines into Soviet airspace was a deliberate, thoroughly planned intelligence operation. It was directed from certain centers in the territory of the United States and Japan."
All the Soviet diplomats and KGB officers Gordievsky discussed the case with were dismayed by the damage done to the Soviet Union's international reputation. Few had any confidence in the official Soviet explanation. Many regarded it as laughable.