In the afternoon of September 1st, flight 007, following the New York – Anchorage – Seoul route, deviated from the normal route by 600 kilometers, and violated USSR airspace. Two fighter-interceptor Su-15s set off to intercept it. One of them, manned by Gennady Osipovich, after having received an order to shoot the plane down, hit it with two missiles, after which the Boeing crashed in the sea off the coast of Sakhalin Island next to Moneron island. All the passengers and crew perished – 269 people.
Just as in modern times, the incident occurred on the backdrop of an tense political situation. Some believe that the peaceful passenger aircraft was destroyed without apparent reason by the soviet military aircraft, and it is then that US President Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire”, and the incident “a crime against humanity, which must never be forgotten”. Others believe the provocations of American intelligence services, stating that the Boeing was making a reconnaissance flight over Soviet territory, and had to be “stopped”. Moreover, in the 1960s US intelligence developed similar provocations against Cuba.
If you add the fact that the destruction of the civilian aircraft has not only proved to be very relevant against the backdrop of an increasingly exacerbated “cold war”, but also coincided with the first attempts of the USSR and the Republic of Korea to enter into some sort of dialog (after which the incident could be forgotten), it is very easy to imagine that someone deliberately sent the passengers and crew to their deaths.
However studying the 1983 disaster is indeed very useful for those who want to go beyond propaganda – pro- or anti-Russian, because the real story of the South Korean Boeing is interesting from this point of view.
Lack of information and material evidence at the initial stages of the investigation created alternate versions of the incident. However, in 1993, during Boris Yeltsin’s visit to South Korea, a copy of all entries of the Boeing’s on-board log, as well as copies of all communications between command centers in the Far East on the night of August 31st to September 1st, were given to Korea and then to international experts. The recording of the communications dotted all the “i’s”, unveiling a completely unexpected outcome for those who are accustomed to seeing the world presuming people have rational motivations for their actions.
It turned out that the team of experienced pilots was distinguished by its utter disorderliness. First, it set the wrong course in the navigation system, and then ignored any information that the plane was flying in the wrong direction. Judging by the “black box”, the pilots until the last minute were confident that they were flying not in Soviet airspace, but were following the correct course, not performing adequate checks to clarify current coordinates. Radio communications about the fact that they were violating Soviet airspace were also ignored. The pilots were calm, had normal/every day conversations, and there is nothing to suggest that they knew about their deviating from the route or saw the fighter-interceptor.
It is considered that, since an Alaska airport’s high-frequency radio beacon was temporarily disabled for routine maintenance, the captain of the vessel forgot or did not wish to check the pre-programmed flight course against that of the internal navigation system and established a course based on his personal compass, after which the team relaxed and the plane was on autopilot.
It is very difficult to imagine that the crew, supposedly experienced and qualified pilots, not only laid in autopilot an incorrect course, but then completely ignored the fact that the plane was flying in the wrong direction, over a different landscape, while the Russian authorities were trying to reach them. Like the Japanese, South Koreans are reputed to be super-disciplined workers who simply could not demonstrate that level of irresponsibility. However, stereotypes are often far from reality, and experiences such as the tragedy at Fukusima or the tragedy of the “Sewol” ferry indicate that irresponsibility and lack of discipline can be found there as much as anywhere else. Moreover, the captain’s authority was so great, that no one on the team would have dared draw his attention to the error.
Upset conspiracists immediately started gossiping, saying that the record had been doctored, but none of the conspiracists raised the question of what exactly was erased from the record. For this author personally, the erasure theory is refuted by the general political context. Yeltsin’s visit to Korea was intended to demonstrate that the policies of the new Russia are radically different from those of the Soviet Union, and in addition to this Boeing’s “black boxes,” Korea was given a specially selected set of documents from the Soviet archives, showing the USSR’s strategic responsibility of for starting the Korean war in 1950-53. Moscow at that time had no need to correct their version of the accident. On the contrary, if Russian authorities had decided to resort to forgery, the “black boxes” would have proved the American version of events, in which the Soviet Union was entirely to blame.
Moreover, the story of the Korean Boeing refutes the idea that two bombs do not fall into one funnel. On April 20th,1978, 5 years prior to the tragedy, another South Korean aircraft, flight No. 902 on the Paris-Seoul route through the North Pole changed its course so drastically (as the airline then formally explained, “because the crew used incorrect values in calculating the magnetic incline”), that it turned almost 180° and instead of heading to Alaska, strayed into Soviet Karelia. And, not responding to requests from ground services, it began to move deeper into Soviet territory. The exact class of aircraft could not be determined due to the darkness and lack of distinctive signs, but upon seeing the Soviet plane, the intruder turned back and began to fly to Finland, after which it was hit by a rocket and had to land on frozen lake Korpiyarvi. That time there were no casualties.
Who in his right mind would believe in such a coincidence? Two instances of such irresponsibility is perceived as something totally unrealistic.
Now let’s see how it looked from the Soviet side. It was the second time a South Korean aircraft defiantly flew into the airspace of the Soviet Union, deviating from its course. Furthermore, the first one did it over Kamchatka where there are sensitive air defense sites, leaving Soviet airspace after fighter aircrafts flew in, and the second one – over Sakhalin.
Is it easy to believe in evil intent with such data? Yes, it’s easy! Especially if you take into account that the route movement in Soviet airspace almost matches the movement of American reconnaissance aircrafts, which more than once flew into the same airspace and when visibility is poor could be confused with civilian model aircrafts.
Add this to the fact that Soviet pilots could not very well distinguish “civilian machines of foreign companies” and could assume that in front of them is the American scout-aircraft RC-135, painted in civilian colors and having similar dimensions and design. The Soviet interceptor fired a few long streams of warning shots from its air guns, but the shots were amour-piercing, not tracer shells (which are not included in the ammunition allotment), therefore, the airline pilots could have not immediately noticed the warning shots. And when the intruder plane slowed down, which was, in the opinion of the ICAO commission, caused by the start of a climb to another tier, the Soviet pilot took this as an attempt to escape interception and, having completely confirmed his suspicions, was ready to shoot.
Therefore, sometimes it’s not worth accusing, not having waited for the results of an investigation or examination, based on the principle of “who else could have done it?”.
Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.