Lessons from KAL 007 on diplomacy and sanctions

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FIVE years ago this week, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing 269 people and provoking worldwide outrage. In the last two years, critics have asserted that the United States misused the KAL affair, made Soviet behavior seem worse than it was, and needlessly brought US-Soviet relations to the danger level.

These critics have focused on statements that senior US officials made soon after the shootdown, and not on the package of measures the US adopted in response to the Soviet action. Yet the US response was far more moderate and measured than the critics assert. At the time, the US measures subjected the Reagan White House to a barrage of complaints from its traditional conservative supporters. But the package represented far more effective diplomacy than that used in answer to previous Soviet actions.

To understand the government's response to the shootdown, one must go back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In reaction to that move, then-President Carter announced a wide range of economic and political sanctions. These included withdrawal of the SALT II Treaty from the ratification process, a US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, a partial embargo on US grain sales to the Soviets, and suspension of Aeroflot flights to New York City. The US then tried to rally its allies behind this package and encouraged them to adopt similar measures. This campaign had little success. It had the unfortunate result of focusing public opinion on the bickering among the Western allies instead of on the Soviet invasion.

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This pattern was repeated after martial law was declared in Poland in 1981. President Reagan slapped a series of new sanctions on the Soviets, including bans on certain export licenses, suspension of talks to renew the expiring bilateral maritime agreement, postponement of talks on a new grain agreement, an end to Aeroflot flights to Washington, and non-renewal of several science and technology agreements. Again, the US tried to rally its allies behind the sanctions package; and once again, their refusal to go along became a major news story.

Thus, when the KAL shootdown occurred, US officials decided that the US response should meet several criteria. It should be attractive to the allies, so that public opinion would focus on the Soviet misdeed and not on Western intramural debates; it should be related directly to what the Soviets had done; it should be aimed at getting the Soviets to take corrective action, rather than simply serve as some sort of punishment; and it should not be something difficult to undo when the time came.

The official response set forth by Mr. Reagan largely fitted the bill. Because the Soviet misdeed was in the field of civil aviation, the response was concentrated there. The US pressed the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to investigate the incident and sought UN Security Council condemnation of the Soviet action. Aeroflot offices in New York and Washington were closed. The US supported efforts by airline pilots' groups and other organizations to restrict flights to the USSR and press the Soviets for compensation. Links between Aeroflot and US carriers were cut, the bilateral transportation cooperation agreement was allowed to expire, and talks to renew cultural and scientific exchanges were suspended. Japan and the US pressed the Soviets to set up a joint flight-monitoring system in the North Pacific, something the Soviets had resisted, to ensure that such a mistake would not recur.

What the administration did not do is significant, too. Despite heavy pressure from Capitol Hill and from elements of the news media, Reagan did not break off arms control talks, reinstate the partial grain embargo, recall Secretary of State George Shultz from a scheduled meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko a few days later, or reduce US-Soviet diplomatic relations.

The administration's response to the shootdown had mixed success but was still more effective than the Afghanistan and Poland sanctions. Soviet efforts to turn the affair into merely another superpower dispute were thwarted. The international community took coordinated action. The airlines of more than a dozen nations launched an unprecedented 14-day boycott on flights to and from Moscow. Only a Soviet veto prevented UN Security Council censure. The ICAO conducted as thorough a probe as possible at the time, and voted to condemn the Soviets for destroying the plane.

The greatest achievement of the US package, however, was the negotiation in 1985 of the US-Japanese-Soviet North Pacific Air Safety Agreement. This pact established communications links among the Anchorage, Tokyo, and Vladivostok air traffic control centers so that airliners straying from commercial flight routes into restricted territory could be identified and redirected to avoid repeating the KAL tragedy. This made possible the resumption of US-Soviet commercial air travel in 1986.

The KAL sanctions did not significantly harm US-Soviet relations. Those relations entered a temporary lull related to the shootdown, the deployment of US Pershing 2 missiles, and Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's illness. But the improvement in relations that predated the KAL incident resumed with Reagan's conciliatory Jan. 16, 1984, speech. The stage was being set for the Geneva summit.

Lawrence J. Goodrich recently joined the Monitor's national news staff after 11 years in the US Foreign Service. His most recent postings were in Moscow and Leningrad.

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