Korean Air Lines Flight 007

1983 shoot-down of a civilian airliner over the then–Soviet Union

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL 007) was a scheduled Korean Air Lines flight from New York City to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska. On September 1, 1983, the South Korean airliner servicing the flight was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor. The airliner was en route from Anchorage to Seoul, but due to a navigational mistake made by the KAL crew the airliner deviated from its original planned route and flew through Soviet prohibited airspace around the time of a U.S. aerial reconnaissance mission. The Soviet Air Forces treated the unidentified aircraft as an intruding U.S. spy plane, and destroyed it with air-to-air missiles, after firing warning shots which were likely not seen by the KAL pilots. The Korean airliner eventually crashed in the sea near Moneron Island west of Sakhalin in the Sea of Japan. All 269 passengers and crew aboard were killed, including Larry McDonald, a United States Representative from Georgia. The Soviets found the wreckage under the sea on September 15, and found the flight recorders in October, but this information was kept secret until 1992.

Artist rendition of KAL 007

The incident was one of the most tense moments of the Cold War and resulted in an escalation of anti-Soviet sentiment, particularly in the United States.


Planned and actual flight paths of KAL 007
  • The target is destroyed.
  • Roger, Korean Air 007...ah, we are experiencing...
  • I am heartbroken and have had nightmares because my best friend is dead. My Daddy and Mummy told me that some Russian men killed her and many, many other people, too. I asked Daddy why the Russians are so cruel. Yuen Wai-Sum was eight and was my best friend. Now we can never play together again. Why? You are the leader of the Russians, can you tell me why Russians have to kill her? I want to name offerings to Wai-Sum, to give her some fresh flowers and to pay respect to her spirit. May I? You are the leader. If you say yes, then it must be okay.
  • Question I asked myself when I heard of his death is “Why Loc, of all people?” It seemed so unfair. Why not some multiple murderer on death row or some drunken bum? Worst of all, why did he die the way he did? I could understand and handle the death of a friend from diseases, but for him to be shot down on an airliner hurts me to the bottom of my soul.
  • We have been struggling for years to know what happened to our loved ones. Now we face the agonizing recognition that their death was neither painless nor instant.
  • There have been many books written about KAL 007 in the West, but the only living eyewitnesses to this tragedy are in the Soviet Union. The world is interested in the facts of what happened. But for me, what is most important is that ordinary Soviet citizens are opening their lips after so many years of silence. By talking, we become normal people.
  • I am far from thinking that the blame for this tragedy lies entirely on us. The passengers on board KAL 007 had become the hostages of two great powers colliding with each other. They were condemned to die.
  • I was just next to him, on the same altitude, 150 meters to 200 meters away. I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing. I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use.
  • I would have landed him on our airfield, and I wanted it very much. Do you think I wanted to kill him? I would rather have shared a bottle with him.
  • The sophisticated provocation masterminded by the US special services with the use of a South Korean plane is an example of extreme adventurism in politics.
"Tower of Prayer", a memorial for those who lost their lives in KAL 007 shootdown, at Cape Soya, Japan
  • Within hours, story began circulating in Washington that the Soviets have been involved.
    • James Oberg, American space journalist and historian, Season 9 episode of TV series Mayday "Target is Destroyed" (2010)
  • The recollections bring back some unpleasant feelings. Those events left scars and added some gray hairs to my head. I will always be convinced that I gave the right order. Sometimes, in strategic operations, we had to sacrifice battalions to save the army.
  • Cold War international tensions rose to a peak in 1983, with the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe exciting Soviet concern and anger, and the Soviets fearing attack under the cover of Able Archer, a NATO military exercise held from 2 to 11 November. Reagan going aloft in his command plane during the exercise worried the Soviets. Moreover, the unrepentant Soviet shooting down on 1 September 1983, over Soviet airspace, of Korean Airlines flight 007, suspected of espionage, increased tension. Two hundred and sixty-nine people, including an American congressman, were on the plane.
  • The destruction of the airliner and its immediate aftermath reaffirmed the Soviet Union's and the United States' essential distrust of each other and ended any hope of an immediate solution to the expanding nuclear arms race. Late November 1983 saw the failure of the European peace campaign as the West German parliament voted to accept 108 medium-range Pershing II missiles for deployment and the Reagan administration immediately began shipping missile components. The Soviets, as expected, broke off the strategic arms reduction negotiations in Geneva, accusing Washington of "wrecking" the talks and describing the Germans as "nuclear maniacs."
    • Seymour Hersh, journalist, The Target Is Destroyed: What Really Happened To Flight 007 And What America, p. 244 (1986)
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