In the wake of the Korean airline tragedy in September, conservatives and liberals have attempted to explain the incident in light of their political views. Unfortunately, since so little evidence has emerged so far that reveals what really happened, these explanations have been largely speculative. The Washington Monthly, however, has managed to obtain advance galleys of dramatic, narrative accounts of the demise of KAL 007 that will be appearing shortly in three leading magazines: Paranoid Review, The New Apologist, and The Moscow Monthly. In each case, the editors claim they have obtained, through undisclosed methods, the “black box” on board the jetliner that recorded all cockpit conversations. The three reconstructions below are based on the alleged contents of the black box and information furnished by authoritative intelligence sources.


It was just after 1 a.m. at the Soviet air-defense command on the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Russia. The Russian commander slumped in front of his radar screen, exhausted from a hard night of drinking vodka and burning synagogues. The evening had gone well; they had even raided a prayer group and confiscated copies of the Bible and William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.

Suddenly, the local commander spotted an American RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace off Kamchatka. He smiled menacingly to himself: “Maybe tonight’s my chance to start an international incident that will enable us to launch an unprovoked first strike on America, home of National Review, one of the magazines that truly understands our sinister plans for world domination!” Then he thought better of it.

After all, such intelligence-gathering missions were quite common, and he was under orders not to shoot down planes if they were outside Soviet airspace. When the rule was issued a few months earlier, the air-defense general giving the order sneered, “It’s part of some. . . international treaty.” He crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it on the ground. “I spit on their treaties,” the general had said. “But, as you know, it’s part of a long-standing Soviet policy to fake compliance with international law to lull America into a false sense of security. Then, whenever it serves our best interest, we brazenly violate their stupid little treaties.”

Now, months later, the Kamchatka commander knew he had only to bide his time. Someday he’d get the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream: to join Soviet troops occupying a small midwestern town, where they could seize the children from their parents and ship them to a communist indoctrination camp so they could learn to shred American flags and worship Stalin.

His reverie was interrupted when a new blip appeared on the screen. It was unmistakably a commercial 747 airliner, probably the regularly scheduled Korean Air Lines flight that flew five times a week from Anchorage to Seoul. But it was very far off course, and headed into Soviet airspace over his base at Petropavlovsk. This could be just the opportunity he’d been waiting for. But was it an important enough target to risk starting a nuclear war? He quickly wheeled around to the Applesky Computer (circuitry courtesy of a Silicon Valley spy ring) and punched in his information request: the passenger list of the Korean jetliner headed his way.

For years, Russian military officials have had access to passenger lists of all jetliners that traveled anywhere near the Soviet Union. The information is provided by a network of informants who pose as airline ticket agents. The air-defense commander quickly scanned the list. One name jumped out at him: Representative Larry McDonald, Democrat from Georgia.

McDonald’s incendiary speeches had been clipped from the Congressional Record by a Washington Post reporter on the Soviet payroll, and subsequently sent to every military outpost in Russia. The commander knew that McDonald was the American politician who best understood the long-range goals of the Soviets. He must be silenced at all costs, the commander thought to himself.

In the meantime, he turned to his aide-de-camp and said, “Won’t it be great when we shoot this plane down?”

“Colonel,” the aide said, “I’m shocked. It could cause the death of innocent civilians and lead us closer to the brink of World War III.”

“You fool! The West will never respond to this brazen provocation. Have you forgotten how we have cleverly sapped their resolve by fluoridating their water and spreading sex education in their schools? And as for you, your insubordination and cowardice during this crisis cannot be tolerated.” With that, he picked up a revolver and shot his aide in the head, a common practice in the Soviet military.

Then the commander radioed his superior in Moscow. “We’ve got a civilian plane with Larry McDonald headed towards our bases in Sakhalin. How should we proceed?”

“Larry McDonald?” General Aleksander Koldunov responded excitedly. “My first response would be to order the plane shot down immediately. But let me check with Premier Andropov. He’s right here.

“Premier, we’ve got a problem near the Sea of Okhotsk. Larry McDonald’s on a civilian plane headed towards our bases there. Should we risk a nuclear war just to kill Larry McDonald?”

“Sure, general,” Andropov said with the cool smile of a veteran killer. “Even if we start a nuclear war, we can absorb 100 million dead, no sweat. Why, we lost 50, 60 million in the last bad winter we had,” Andropov chuckled softly. “You know, this might be the most fun I’ve had since I brutally suppressed the Hungarian freedom fighters.”

Moments later, pilot 805, flying a Su-15 jet, called to the Korean pilot on his radio, “Hey, slant-eyes. We’re going to turn you into chop suey unless you recite by memory the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

“Oh please don’t shoot! Oh God! My only child won’t be able to afford his iron lung if I die. Have you no mercy?” the pilot of the Korean jet pleaded.

But to no avail. At 3:25 a.m., pilot 805 radioed his progress to Soviet ground stations. At 3:26 a.m., he announced, “The target is destroyed . . . I am breaking off attack.”

Back in Moscow’s war control room, Andropov and the military leaders joyously leaped to their feet at the pilot’s announcement. As the Soviet leaders toasted each other with vodka, Andropov raised his hands for a moment of silence. “Let’s understand that a human tragedy has taken place here, even though this brings us closer to our goal of nuclear victory and world domination.” He paused for a moment to smile broadly. “That tragedy, of course, is that there won’t be any survivors for us to torture and send to the Gulag to die!” With that quip, he raised his vodka glass high over his head and the room broke into wild cheering.


It was just after 1 a.m. at the Soviet air-defense command on the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Russia. The Russian commander was drinking coffee to stay awake and reading The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell, a newly translated Russian best-seller. His mood grew somber as he contemplated the great weight that rested heavily upon his shoulders. “Golly, the survival of the human species depends upon people in sensitive jobs like mine,” he thought. “I hope we reach a nuclear arms agreement with the United States real soon, so that some small mishap doesn’t trigger a nuclear holocaust, which in the end neither side can really win.” He looked at the photographs of his children and his beloved Olga that sat atop the radar screen and sighed.

Suddenly, he spotted an American RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace near the military outpost. Someday, he mused to himself, we’ll all live in peace and such spy missions will become unnecessary. Until then, it was his job to help protect his country’s borders from intrusion.

Then another blip appeared on the radar screen. It might have been the regularly scheduled Korean Air Lines Flight 007. But if so, the commercial 747 jetliner had strayed far off course—and was headed into Soviet airspace, towards his base at Petropavlovsk. He had to warn it, or else it might be forced by the Soviets to land, thus inconveniencing the 269 passengers aboard. “I’d hate to think that I had caused anybody to miss a dinner engagement in Seoul,” he thought.

At the commander’s order, a squad of MiG-23s and Su-15s from the base at Petropavlovsk sped off into the early morning sky. But when the pilots saw that the plane was headed back out into international airspace, they became upset. “Wait, don’t leave,” one of the Soviet pilots pleaded. “Don’t you want to stay and talk? It’s lonely here on this godforsaken peninsula, and we’d like to play cards and drink vodka with you.”

But there was no response. As the foreign plane headed away, the Soviet pilots grumbled in disappointment and made their desultory return to their base.

Then, abruptly, the plane swung back over Soviet territory and headed for Sakhalin Island near the Sea of Okhotsk. The island was the site of three highly sensitive military encampments that were the pride of the Soviet military, though more for their engineering prowess and architectural beauty than for any strategic value they might have. As the Korean jetliner approached Sakhalin Island, a large television camera was gradually lowered from one wing.

Soviet pilot 805 radioed General Aleksandr Koldunov, commander of the Air Defense Forces. “We’ve got a Korean passenger plane spying on our bases on Sakhalin,” he reported. “How do we stop it?”

“Stop it?” Koldunov fumed. “It’s our guest here. Didn’t it ever occur to you to try to see the situation from their point of view? Maybe they’re lost. Maybe they’re just trying to conserve fuel so they can lessen their dependence on scarce and ecologically damaging petroleum byproducts. Try to give the plane a friendly greeting. Only if you receive a hostile response should you even think about shooting it down.”

Koldunov was annoyed. This episode was wasting precious resources at a time when there were so many mouths to feed in Mother Russia. So many more jobs would be created for his countrymen if these funds were spent in the civilian economy instead of having to be used to chase off foreign intruders or to oppose colonialism in the Third World. It was expensive enough having to pay for all those agricultural technicians in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, back near Sakhalin Island’s naval base, the pilots tried to make radio contact again with the Korean pilot. “Please, answer us,” the MiG pilot called out. “We are all members of the human family. We, like you, seek only to pursue our legitimate national interests through lawful means.”

Suddenly, the Soviets’ radios crackled with the voice of an angry Korean. “Buzz off, commie dogs. I’m on a spy mission bought and paid for by the Pentagon, and they pay on completion. I’m not leaving this airspace until I get enough photographs to sabotage arms negotiations forever.”

Pilot 805 sighed with remorse. He’d lost so many relatives during the siege of Stalingrad that the mere thought of violence made him physically ill. “I’m going to count to ten,” he warned, “and if you don’t come peacefully, I’ll have no choice but to shoot.”

“No way, Jose,” the Korean pilot answered. “I don’t make deals with Reds.”


“Up yours buddy!”


“Your mama wears combat boots!”


“I dare you! I’ve got a cruise missile aimed right at downtown Vladivostok!”

At 3:25 a.m., pilot 805 radioed his progress to the Soviet ground stations. “He’s a madman, commander. I’m going to have to shoot.”

The commander shook his head sadly. He shuddered to think of how George Will would use this for propaganda purposes, but now he had no choice. “Go ahead, 805.”

It was the kind of day all Soviet pilots dreaded.

Premier Andropov was even more upset when he heard the news. He exploded angrily. “How dare you jeopardize our negotiations in Geneva with this stupid action? Besides, don’t you know that this will only play into the hands of the hardliners in the Kremlin who want to increase military spending, which is the most inflationary kind that there is?”

But the officers at the air-defense command explained the scenario to him—the spy plane, its crazed pilot, all the provocations. Andropov nodded in resignation. “I guess there was nothing else that could be done,” he said sadly. “Let’s just hope Reagan and the Western press don’t seize on this incident to worsen American-Soviet relations.”


It was just after 1 a.m. at the Soviet air-defense command on the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Russia. The Russian commander, Colonel Ivan Kaminsky, was leafing through a catalog from GUM department store in Moscow, ogling all the pointless luxury goods he’d be able to buy when he took early retirement next year and went to work as a consultant for a large military contractor. Now and then he’d glance at the brand-new radar screen obtained through uncompetitive bidding by the Soviet Defense Ministry. “For 50 billion rubles, you’d think they could get a machine that worked,” the colonel groused to himself as he pounded the screen to bring the images into sharper relief. “I’d speak up about this waste of taxpayers’ money, but I can’t afford to lose my job and jeopardize my son’s university education. Without this college albatross around my neck, I might be willing to take the kind of risks that made our country great. But now I guess I’ll just have to play it safe.”

Suddenly, he spotted an American RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace near the military outpost. Or at least he thought it was an American spy plane; you couldn’t be sure with this new radar equipment. (See “The Radar Screen We Want and Need,” by Gregor Eastervich, The Moscow Monthly, August 1983). Terrorized by the prospect of taking the initiative, the commander watched the American plane’s progress, then breathed a sigh of relief as it swung away toward Shemya Island in the Aleutians. Like all bureaucrats, he was driven by a desire to “cover his ass,” protect his turf, and avoid rocking the boat. It was the same play-it-safe mentality that has led to Russia’s current economic stagnation and the failure of the latest five-year plan, as Japan, West Germany, and other Western nations have out-competed us in the international marketplace. And it was this selfish mindset—so unlike the patriotic fervor that drew thousands of idealistic young people to work for Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s—that would lay the groundwork for the tragedy that followed.

A new blip appeared on the radar screen. It looked suspiciously like another American spy plane, and it was headed into Soviet airspace. The colonel squinted but the screen just wasn’t clear enough. It might have been the Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which flew five times a week between Anchorage and Seoul—but why was it headed towards his base at Petropavlovsk?

“Holy Lenin!” the commander thought, “this could screw up my career forever!” He remembered what had happened in 1978, when another Korean jetliner had strayed off course and was 1,000 miles inside Soviet territory before it was finally forced to land. The local commander’s failure to stop the intruder before it had passed over sensitive military installations had resulted in his earning a “very good” instead of an “excellent” on his evaluation report. This had sent his career into a tailspin; after a stint as a submarine tender in Murmansk, he was transferred to Afghanistan where he vainly hoped he could “punch his ticket” and get back on the career track. Worst of all, his son was thrown out of college.

“Such a tragic waste,” Kaminsky thought to himself. He’d have to stall on this one. He ordered some Su-15s and MiG-23s to trail the plane, but the last thing on his mind was the danger to Russia’s security or to world peace. As a veteran brown-noser, he’d risen quickly through the ranks as a procurement officer and special assistant to General Aleksandr Koldunov, the commander of the Air Defense Forces. He’d never tasted a day of combat in his life, but his credentials looked great—on paper. And as a high-ranking officer from the upper classes, he wouldn’t have to personally confront the danger his pilots—working class boys from Kiev—had to face.

Kaminsky decided to try to reach his mentor, General Koldunov, at Moscow’s air-defense command headquarters. The general would tell him what would look best on his resume.

“Can I speak to General Koldunov, this is Colonel Kaminsky in Kamchatka with an emergency,” he pleaded into the phone.

“I’m sorry, colonel, the general is in an all-day budget meeting and left instructions not to be disturbed under any circumstances,” the secretary answered.

“Can you leave him a note?” Kaminsky implored.

“I’ll do my best,” the secretary said, idly returning to her paperback novel and dialing one of Moscow’s notoriously slow messenger services. After all, it wasn’t her life that was at stake. In fact, she should have been back home with her two kids, giving them the attention they deserved, rather than turning them over to an impersonal “day-care” bureaucracy. But like many of Russia’s modern young women, she had decided to take a menial job in order to “fulfill herself,” although her energies would have been better spent with her children and in volunteer work.

Meanwhile, over at the Kremlin, General Koldunov was also pursuing his own selfish goals, in the form of another 50 billion rubles for more radar equipment for his installations. “It’s just not fair,” he told the Politburo. “The Navy gets all this fancy, high-tech equipment, and we have to make due with radar that’s so bad our boys may not be able to tell the difference between an American spy plane and, say, a Korean passenger jet.” “There’s no military problem that can’t be solved by throwing enough money at it,” Premier Yuri Andropov grimly replied to Koldunov’s request. “General, you will have the best radar money can buy.”

As the other generals grumbled, a messenger entered quietly and. handed General Koldunov a note. “COL. KAMINSKY WANTS YOU TO CALL. URGENT.” Koldunov casually crumpled up the note and put it in his pocket, thinking instead about the big new office and extra limousines that the additional appropriations would mean. He could call Kaminsky tomorrow. Tonight, he would celebrate with his mistress.

Back at the Kamchatka airbase, Colonel Kaminsky was in a panic. He’d received no word from Koldunov yet, and the mystery plane was already zooming over the Sea of Japan towards the Soviet mainland.

He contacted pilot 805. “This is your commander. Have you made contact with the intruder yet?”

“No, sir. That channel on our radios doesn’t seem to be working.” It was all too typical, Kaminsky realized. All those billions for sophisticated high-tech equipment and not a measly kopeck for spare parts and maintenance.

Kaminsky knew he had only a few moments to act. He pondered the choices. If he ordered the pilot to shoot and the intruder turned out to be an innocent civilian passenger plane, it might mean nuclear war. If he let the plane go, and Koldunov discovered that he’d allowed a hostile foreign power to violate Soviet airspace, he’d never get any referrals in his new consulting job. His choice seemed obvious.

“Pilot 805,” Kaminsky said, “shoot to kill.”

At 3:26 a.m., pilot 805 announced, “The target is destroyed . . . I am breaking off attack.”

“Good work,” Kaminsky responded. He smiled, thinking of the promotion that awaited him.

(Editors note: But was it such “good work”? I have my doubts. The malfunctioning equipment, the bureaucratic snafus, the laziness and cowardice of some government employees—all raise troubling questions about the competence of our military and even our government. If counterrevolutionaries are communists who took a critical look at communism and defected, then neocommunists like myself are communists who took the same look and decided to retain our goals but to abandon some of our prejudices. We still believe in the class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat, but we no longer automatically oppose individual incentive and entrepreneurship. And we don’t automatically favor state ownership and big bureaucracies. We have come to distrust all automatic responses, communist and capitalist alike.

This was the real lesson of the Korean jetliner tragedy. Because our system doesn’t encourage risk-takers, too many air-defense officers responded automatically and took the safe way out.

It hasn’t always been that way. Under Stalin, there was a continual turnover of government employees, and everyone knew they would be held accountable. But with the fading away of show trials, summary executions, and firing squads, government today can’t subject its employees to meaningful performance evaluation. Burdened by today’s cumbersome civil service regulations, it may take months, even years, before you can take a government employee and execute him. Government can’t work with that kind of obstacle. About half of today’s civil servants and military officers should be personally appointed by the Communist party leaders, while the other half should be provided civil service protection. With this much needed infusion—and spilling—of new blood, perhaps we can get our country moving again and build the true socialist society we all want.)

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Art Levine

Art Levine is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of the recent book Mental Health, Inc: How Corruption, Lax Oversight, and Failed Reforms Endanger Our Most Vulnerable Citizens.