Soviets maintain tough posture about downing of KAL 7 last year

One year after the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 7, an unrepentant Soviet Union clings to a claim that it merely reacted to a Washington-inspired ''provocation'' by shooting down a ''spy plane.''

The Soviets have offered neither apologies nor compensation to the families of the 269 people who died when the Boeing 747 airliner, on a flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul was shot down by Soviet fighters over Sakhalin Island.

But behind the tough public posture is probably a realization that the incident dealt a major setback to Soviet image-building efforts among world nations - and that the actions taken that night will likely have repercussions for years to come.

Still, one year after the downing of the Korean airliner, the world seems to have lost much of its initial outrage.

''What lingers is probably a kind of confirmation that you're dealing with people who play hardball and that ... sometimes react in ways that we would consider unreasonable,'' a high-level Western embassy official says.

If Soviet officialdom has felt any private anguish over the incident, however , it has been well-hidden. Moreover, Soviet officials - publicly at least - claim that should a similar incident take place again, they would do the same thing.

This view was implied only days after the incident by Soviet military chief of staff Nikolai V. Ogarkov in a rare press conference in Moscow in which he gave the official Soviet version of the downing of the aircraft.

Perhaps the chief unanswered question is why the airliner strayed more than 100 miles off course and crossed into Soviet airspace in the first place.

Most theories have centered on either pilot error or difficulties with electronic navigation equipment. It is unlikely that any definitive answer will ever emerge, since the plane's on-board flight recorder was never recovered from the Sea of Japan.

Some theories hold that the plane deliberately crossed the Soviet boundary, in an effort to test this country's air defense alert system. The British magazine Defense Attache, in an article by a pseudonymous author, even suggested that the US space shuttle was involved in an elaborate scheme to carefully monitor Soviet responses.

Such theories, no matter how far-fetched they might seem to Westerners, are trumpeted in the government-controlled press here as evidence of a far-reaching conspiracy against the Soviet Union.

In one of the latest examples, Radio Moscow - supposedly basing its report on expert Western opinion - held that a bomb had been placed on board the airliner and detonated to prevent search crews from discovering the extensive electronic espionage equipment on board.

While many analysts have dismissed the Soviet version of events from the beginning, others call attention to the presence of a US intelligence-gathering RC-135 aircraft in the area shortly before the incident.

A high-level US government official theorized that the Soviets may genuinely have mistaken the civilian airliner for the intelligence-gathering plane, although the two have far different physical characteristics and profiles on a radar screen.

But the official added, ''I don't think you should shoot down a plane even if you're convinced that it's an intelligence plane.''

There are myriad lawsuits pending against the Soviet Union, Korean Air Lines (which is now called ''Korea Air''), the Boeing Corporation, and the manufacturers of the on-board navigation system.

Given that situation, compounded by the current deep freeze in East-West relations, few analysts expect the Soviets to abandon their version of the events of Sept. 1, 1983.

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