Soviet Jets Shoot Down Korean Air Lines Flight 007

As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were increasing after the failure of détente, Soviet fighters shot down an unarmed civilian passenger plane that strayed into Soviet airspace while en route to South Korea.

Summary of Event

In the early hours of September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL 007) failed to arrive on schedule at Seoul’s Kimpo International Airport. Persons awaiting passengers who were flying in from New York soon saw the arrival board indicate that the flight’s status had become “delayed.” At the 6:05 a.m. update, they eagerly awaited a new arrival time. Instead, they were informed that the flight had been delayed “indefinitely.” Sakhalin incident
Korean Air Lines Flight 007
Soviet Union;Sakhalin incident
Airliners, attacks
[kw]Soviet Jets Shoot Down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (Sept. 1, 1983)
[kw]Jets Shoot Down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Soviet (Sept. 1, 1983)
[kw]Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Soviet Jets Shoot Down (Sept. 1, 1983)
[kw]Air Lines Flight 007, Soviet Jets Shoot Down Korean (Sept. 1, 1983)
[kw]Flight 007, Soviet Jets Shoot Down Korean Air Lines (Sept. 1, 1983)
Sakhalin incident
Korean Air Lines Flight 007
Soviet Union;Sakhalin incident
Airliners, attacks
[g]Soviet Union;Sept. 1, 1983: Soviet Jets Shoot Down Korean Air Lines Flight 007[05230]
[g]Russia;Sept. 1, 1983: Soviet Jets Shoot Down Korean Air Lines Flight 007[05230]
[c]Cold War;Sept. 1, 1983: Soviet Jets Shoot Down Korean Air Lines Flight 007[05230]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 1, 1983: Soviet Jets Shoot Down Korean Air Lines Flight 007[05230]
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations]
Andropov, Yuri
McDonald, Lawrence

Residents of Japan protest outside the Soviet embassy in Tokyo on September 7, 1983, days after the Soviet military shot down a South Korean airliner that strayed into Soviet airspace.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Air traffic controllers all over the Pacific Rim were by then engaged in a frantic search to locate the missing plane, which had last been heard from at 3:27 a.m. Japanese search and rescue teams were launched to its last known check-in point. When another KAL airliner following KAL 007’s path, KAL 15, landed at Kimpo, its pilot was eagerly questioned for any information on the missing plane’s whereabouts. By 7:20, Korea’s national television station announced that KAL 007 was missing, and similar information was appearing on the previous day’s evening news in the United States.

At precisely 10:00 a.m., South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs made a formal announcement that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had confirmed that KAL 007 had landed in Sakhalin and that all crew and passengers were safe. The apparent happy news quickly allayed the fears of the crowd of friends and family waiting for the missing flight, and word soon circulated that the various governments involved were already at work to repatriate everyone stranded in Soviet territory.

However, as time passed, the good news began to unravel, and the evidence that came out was far uglier, reminiscent of the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I. When KAL 007 strayed into Soviet airspace, it was intercepted by Soviet fighters, but instead of being escorted to a safe landing at a Soviet airfield, it was shot from the sky, sending the plane plunging somewhere off Sakhalin Island.


The downing of KAL 007 provided concrete evidence for U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s assertion that the Soviet Union was the greatest threat to the United States and to peace. This claim was bolstered by the Kremlin’s insistence on denying any knowledge of the plane’s fate until that assertion proved to be false. Reagan portrayed the Soviets as having known perfectly well that the jetliner they shot down was full of innocent civilians, asserting that the Soviet system was brutal and contemptuous of human life. Furthermore, the incident made it difficult for those calling for nuclear disarmament to continue to blame Reagan for the steady disintegration of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union since the high point of President Richard M. Nixon’s détente. Détente (U.S.-Soviet relations)

However, beyond the boundaries of official position statements, conspiracy theories were rapidly developing. Several writers brought forth evidence that U.S. intelligence was routinely using civilian airliners to provoke Soviet air defenses in order to gain a better picture of the nature and power of Soviet radar in key positions. They cited such incidents as that of KAL 902, en route from Paris to Seoul on April 20, 1978, which made a U-turn near Greenland, violated Soviet airspace near the Kola Peninsula radar, and was forced to land on a frozen lake; the passengers were repatriated within a day and the crew a few days later. Some of the writers of these accusations considered the risk posed to nonconsenting civilians by U.S. intelligence agencies to be as reprehensible as the Soviets’ shooting down KAL 007. Some called for a complete congressional investigation of the situation, as well as new restrictions on the scope of the activities of U.S. intelligence operations. However, given the climate of opinion at the time, nothing ever came of these calls for an investigation.

On the fringes, even wilder speculations began to emerge. Perhaps remembering the early announcement that KAL 007 was safe, some began to speculate that the Soviets had indeed captured the airplane and had sequestered its passengers and crew in duress in a Siberian prison. Past incidents in which prisoners from abroad “disappeared” for years or even decades in the Soviet penal system, with the Soviet government adamantly denying knowledge of their whereabouts, made such allegations plausible enough to be believed.

Such speculations were fueled by the fact that one of the most prominent passengers on the doomed flight was U.S. congressman Lawrence McDonald, on his way to a meeting of conservative leaders in Seoul. McDonald was head of the John Birch Society, an anticommunist organization considered by many to be not merely conservative but actively reactionary in its agendas. Among the circles in which he traveled were many who were quite ready to believe almost anything about the Soviet Union, including its imprisonment and brutalization of innocent civilians guilty only of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the KGB archives, including the cockpit recorder tapes from the doomed flight, that conspiracy theory lost any shred of plausibility. Sakhalin incident
Korean Air Lines Flight 007
Soviet Union;Sakhalin incident
Airliners, attacks

Further Reading

  • Brun, Michael. Incident at Sakhalin: The True Mission of KAL Flight 007. Translated by Robert Bonnono. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995. Meticulously details discrepancies between the official account of the incident and the observed patterns of wreckage found by recovery divers, and calls for a full investigation.
  • Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. Biography of Ronald Reagan, including his role in the American response to the destruction of KAL 007 and how it became one of the major elements in the construction of his narrative of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.”
  • Clubb, Oliver. KAL Flight 007: The Hidden Story. Sag Harbor, N.Y.: Permanent Press, 1985. Written shortly after the incident, the book accuses the United States of deliberately using not only KAL 007 but other civilian jetliners to “accidentally stray” over Soviet airspace on civilian missions. Demands a full congressional investigation of duplicity by the nation’s intelligence agencies.
  • Dobrynin, Anatoly. In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents. New York: Random House, 1995. Memoir of one of the longest-serving ambassadors to the United States. Dobrynin includes an entire chapter on the KAL 007 incident and is astonishingly critical of his own side.
  • Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Overview of Korean history since the partition at the beginning of the Cold War. Includes information on KAL 007 in a specifically Korean context.
  • Pearson, David E. KAL 007: The Coverup. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. Alleges a massive cover-up on the part of the United States of the true fate of KAL 007 and its passengers.

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