A Lingering Blot on Glasnost
IF the Soviets are serious about sending conciliatory signals to the West, then there is one long overdue gesture that would help convince us they have finally put their duplicitous past behind them. It would be an admission of guilt, and then payment of compensation, for the shooting down in 1983 of Korean Air Lines flight 007, with the loss of all 269 passengers aboard.
The passengers included a number of Americans, including a member of the US House of Representatives.
It is not in question that the Boeing 747 had drifted off its planned Pacific course from Alaska to South Korea and into Soviet air space. But until now, everything else about the flight and its violent end has been in dispute as the Soviets layered the story with falsehood upon falsehood.
Initially the Soviets denied for five days that they had shot down the aircraft. What the Soviets did not know was that Japanese and American intelligence experts had a recorded audio tape of the excited chatter of Soviet combat pilots as they were directed to the target by ground controllers and as they moved in to attack.
The tape clearly recorded the report of the pilot who fired his rockets at the Korean airliner, and his announcement that the intended target had been destroyed.
It was this tape, played by the United States delegation at the United Nations, that convinced the world the Soviets had indeed, as they belatedly admitted, "terminated" the flight of KAL 007.
Even then, however, the Soviets blustered without hint of regret.
At the time, I was serving a stint as State Department spokesman. A few days after the shootdown, then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz met in Madrid with his Soviet opposite number, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.
We were astonished to hear Mr. Gromyko say that the Soviets had shot down the plane, were within rights to do so, and would do it again. The behind-closed-doors exchange between the two men was about as undiplomatic as such meetings get.
Embarrassed by the world outcry, the Soviets charged that the civilian airliner was on some kind of unexplained spying mission for the United States. This Soviet allegation was picked up and replayed by apologists for the Soviet Union in the West.
The Soviets charged that the Korean plane was suspiciously flying without lights.
They claimed that before shooting it out of the sky with rockets, they fired warning tracer shots and tried talking to it by radio.
They claimed the Korean pilots ignored attempts to get it to land.
None of this was true.
Now reporters for the Soviet newspaper Izvestia have been attempting to reconstruct what happened.
The Soviet pilot who downed the Korean airliner, retired Lieut. Col. Gennadi Osipovich, admitted to the paper that official claims were false; for example, he had no tracers, and he made no radio contact.
Col. Osipovich still harbors suspicions that the flight was intelligence-related, although the Izvestia stories report that the divers who found and later searched the Korean plane's wreckage at the bottom of the sea found no espionage equipment.
The Izvestia reporters complained that their government, even eight years after the incident, and in an era when the Soviet press is freer to investigate, was not forthcoming about the affair and had declined to release an official report about it.
Even the exact crash site, west of Sakhalin Island in the Pacific, has not been made known to the public. Relatives of those killed want to know where the plane went down so they can hold prayer services there.
They also want compensation for the bereaved families.
As the Soviet Union says it is moving to eliminate the injustices of the past and to correct the distortions of history dictated by communist dogma, it is time for it to set right the record on KAL 007, and to make amends.