The scandal that never was

Paul Foot

  • Shootdown: The Verdict on KAL 007 by R.W. Johnson
    Chatto, 335 pp, £10.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7011 2983 2

Profound embarrassment has greeted the publication of R.W. Johnson’s book on the shooting-down of a Korean airliner over Russian airspace. Even its serialisation in the Sunday Telegraph showed signs of embarrassment, as though the editors had not realised what they were commissioning. ‘Experts’ with strong connections with the Central Intelligence Agency have been hired to ‘dispose of’ the book in important people’s newspapers, and most of the media have responded with their most deadly weapon: silence. This embarrassment is not surprising. It is a tribute to the blow which Mr Johnson has struck at the heart of the politics which have dominated the 1980s on both sides of the Atlantic.

The shoot-down of KAL 007 on the night of 31 August/1 September 1983 gave a boost to President Reagan’s Administration. At once, a set of Cold War measures which had previously been threatened passed through both elected Houses. Disarmament talks faltered, and the arms race quickened.

On all sides, people believed the story which was circulated with much panache by Reagan’s team. An airliner with 269 people in it, many of them children, had strayed by accident over Russian airspace on a routine flight from Anchorage in Alaska to Seoul, South Korea. Without warning, Russian fighters shot it down: 269 innocent people had been murdered by a barbarian power. What more proof was needed of the old maxim that good and democratic people must arm themselves against the forces of lawlessness and terror? Anyone who suggested otherwise was plainly an agent of the barbarians.

R.W. Johnson was one of the few people on either side of the Atlantic to resist. His articles in the Guardian drew a message from a Tory MP (generously not named in this book) to the head of Magdalen College, Oxford suggesting that Mr Johnson was ‘not a fit person’ to be a don there. He stuck to his sceptical view, however, and enriched it with meticulous research. The result is not only a terrifying story – far more terrifying than any work of fiction could ever be – but a political exposé of the highest order.

The story starts with the facts about the last flight of KAL 007. The aircraft was equipped with the most sophisticated, computerised navigational aids. The route from Anchorage to Seoul goes so close to Russia that it is dotted with signals waypoints, all equally well-equipped. If the equipment works, an airliner cannot stray off-course. If it doesn’t work, the warning mechanisms in the plane and on the ground are certain to alert the pilot within seconds. Yet almost from the moment it left Anchorage, KAL 007 strayed northwards off its proper path. It was 365 miles off-course when it was shot down: further than any other plane had strayed in the history of civil aviation.

Somehow, none of the waypoints were warned of this deviation. Somehow, no one on board noticed. Somehow, before he set off from Anchorage, the aircraft’s captain had sketched a route very similar to the one he actually took. Somehow, he had taken on extra fuel, though he logged less fuel than his proper complement. Somehow, when the Russian fighters swarmed around him firing tracer bullets, he seemed to try to dodge the Russian fighters with changes of course and altitude which were not notified to ground control. R.W. Johnson makes an effort at the end of his book to reckon the odds on all these things happening by accident on one night. He gives up at ‘literally billions or trillions to one’.

If the plane did not stray by accident into Russian airspace, however, it must have done so by design. Here, incredulousness vies with probability. For what conceivable reason would a civil airliner deliberately fly with more than two hundred passengers into some of the most sensitive and dangerous airspace on earth? Could it have been on a surveillance mission? R.W. Johnson convincingly rejects the notion that KAL 007 carried its own surveillance equipment – so how could it have been spying?

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