Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

KAL 007: A Targeted Assassination?


Helm 2On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 en route on its second leg from Anchorage, Alaska to Seoul, South Korea was shot down by a Soviet interceptor aircraft into the Sea of Japan when it deviated from its intended route into Soviet territory.  The total death toll of 269 passengers included the U.S. Congressman from Georgia, Lawrence McDonald.  This act only further heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Leaving 15 minutes after KAL 007, the ‘sister flight’ KAL 015 carrying North Carolina Senator, Jesse Helms, Idaho Senator Steven Symms, and Kentucky Representative, Carroll J. Hubbard, arrived in Seoul without incident. As the Political Counselor in Seoul from 1983 to 1987, Thomas P.H. Dunlop discusses finding out about the downed plane and the reaction of Senator Jesse Helms; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 1996.  Senator Helms, described by Dunlop as the ‘Cold War Senator’, thought that the downed plane was actually a targeted assassination attempt against him and demanded to leave the country on an Air Force flight immediately.  

You can read the other perspective on KAL 007 and about other experiences with Congressional delegations (or CODELs).

 

“I stayed on to meet Congressman Larry McDonald in Flight 007 which, of course, never arrived”

KAL mapDUNLOP: KAL Flight 007 took off from Anchorage, bound for Seoul, on September 1, 1983. I had only been at the Embassy in Seoul for a couple of months. One of the passengers was Congressman Larry McDonald. KAL Flight 015, which took off from Anchorage only 15 minutes ahead of Flight 007, was carrying Senator Jesse Helms [Republican, North Carolina], his wife, and a member of the Senator’s staff. I’m not sure why KAL scheduled two flights along the same route that were to arrive in Seoul at about the same time. They probably started from different places.

In any event, since there was a Congressman on Flight 007 and a Senator on Flight 015. Ambassador “Dixie” Walker and I went to the Seoul airport, each to meet a different flight. We drove out to the airport together, but there was another car that was to take me home if Flight 007, which I was to meet, was delayed. This flight was due 15 minutes after Senator Helms and his party arrived on Flight 015.

As we know, Flight 015 landed on time, the Senator and his party were greeted by Ambassador Walker, who then took them into Seoul to the Hilton Hotel, where a large, security-oriented international conference was being held. Senator Helms was to be one of the key speakers at that conference to represent the tough Cold-War warrior face he assumed. He was going to be in Seoul for two nights and the better part of three days.

I stayed on to meet Congressman Larry McDonald on Flight 007 which, of course, never arrived at Kimpo Airport in Seoul. I knew the South Korean officials in the little protocol office there who could give me flight information, because I had been out there to meet people at various times. They were able to tell me pretty quickly that there was almost no likelihood of Flight 007 arriving at Kimpo Airport. Either this flight had “diverted” somewhere, had crashed, or something like that. So I left the airport and went back to the Embassy, which was a good 45-minute drive from the airport in normal traffic….

I called Ambassador Walker at the Hilton Hotel and told him what was happening. I also told him that there were beginning to be reports, both on the radio and directly to the Embassy, indicating that that airplane may have crashed. Of course, that later turned out to be true. It was certainly intercepted by a Soviet fighter aircraft, as it was way off course.

We learned this information in bits and pieces, of course. We were being kept as well informed as anybody could have been. It was several hours after Flight 007 was due in Seoul before the information was enough to report to the South Koreans and then to the public that the plane had not only been intercepted over Soviet airspace but shot down.

This has now been published. It was obtained from the radio intercept stations which we maintain by remote control, interestingly enough, on Hokkaido Island, the northernmost of the main islands of Japan.

“”The target is destroyed”

Q: The radio intercept station was at Wakkanai [air station in Hokkaido].

DUNLOP: These radio intercept station were targeted on Soviet air activity, including both air defense as well as commercial air activity. What was being said over the air was being tape recorded. However, it was not immediately listened to. There was no live person listening to the Soviet transmissions. It was not clear and never, perhaps, has never been made sufficiently clear to the public, who always like to suspect some kind of “complicity” or something of that kind involved in these things. However, there was no live Japanese, Korean, or American person listening to these tapes.

However, once we realized that something bad had happened in the area, the tapes were recovered, played back, interpreted, and made available to the senior people in the governments concerned. What was on those tapes has now been totally released to the public. In fact, a little bit later they were played up at the UN. They were the normal kind of traffic conversation that you would hear between a fighter pilot sent up to intercept an aircraft and his ground “controller.”

It ends with those famous words, “The target is destroyed.”

We didn’t know all of that at this time. It was a very confusing time. Since so much of the information was extremely sensitive and classified, I became the courier going back and forth to the Hilton Hotel where the Ambassador and Senator Helms were with these bits and pieces of information. It became very clear that the plane had been destroyed and that there were probably no survivors.

For a while we hoped that KAL Flight 007 had been forced down and that it landed safely in Soviet territory. We hoped that the Soviets were not saying so because they couldn’t figure out what to say. In fact, that was not the case. The plane was shot down, and everyone aboard was killed.

There was some interesting fallout to this. Of course, this incident tremendously concerned the Korean public, which is very nervous, living so close to North Korea. There was concern that this was a sign of a deliberate escalation of tensions with the communists in northeast Asia. For that matter, it also concerned us, although I think that we were far more prepared to accept that this was just a case of Soviet stupidity and brutality, rather than anything part of some larger malevolent scheme.

“Senator Helms was totally convinced that he was the Soviets’ target”

amb walkerParticularly interesting to me was the reaction of our “Cold War” Senator, Senator Jesse Helms. I got over to the Hilton Hotel on one of my courier runs at about 6:00 p.m. I was waiting to go in to talk to Ambassador Walker (at right, with his wife at the Ambassador’s Residence in 1982). He was in the room with Senator Helms. They were having a talk while I was waiting out in the hall.

His staff aide came up to me and said rather brusquely, “Well, what have you done about the Senator’s flight?” I thought that he was talking about the Senator’s reservation for his ongoing travel two days hence. We had taken his tickets and confirmed his reservations on an ongoing flight. I hadn’t done that personally, but I started by being reassuring and said to the young staffer,  “We have a very efficient, Korean national employee at the Embassy who always takes care of these things. I always check on it.”

The Senator’s staffer said, “No, you don’t understand. The Senator is leaving South Korea  tonight. This was an assassination attempt directed at him! He’s leaving in an Air Force airplane with a fighter escort at midnight.”

I was floored. I didn’t know anything about this. Senator Helms was totally convinced that he was the Soviets’ target and they had just shot down the wrong airplane.

Well, this generated a lot of confusion and a lot of problems because, while Ambassador Walker was trying very hard to persuade Senator Helms to change his mind, he also told me to get Lt. Gen. John Pickett, the Commanding General of the 7th Air Force, tell him the situation, and ask him to “lay on” this extraordinary request. I went back home because the telephone situation was better from my home in reaching the command post where I thought that I could find Gen. Pickett. And the telephone situation WAS much better…

“The Air Force should have sent Senator Helms a bill for the travel of one airplane to Seoul to pick up the Senator”

At about 7:00 p.m. I got General John Pickett on the phone. We were on a first-name basis. He is a wonderful and very capable man. I said, “John, this is the one call that you did not want to receive at 7:00 p.m. tonight. I’ve got to tell you that we’ve got Senator Helms who is insisting that this tragedy involving the KAL flight was personally directed at him. He thinks that his life is in danger, and he is insisting that the U.S. Air Force, and that is you, John, fly him out of here tonight with a fighter escort.”

A long silence ensued.

I felt so embarrassed for myself as an American and as an Embassy officer to have to convey this message. I was also embarrassed for General Pickett, because it might be enormously difficult to lay on something like this with only five or six hours’ warning.

Finally, I broke this long silence and said, “John, look, I’m not asking you to tell me that you can or can’t do this. What I want you to authorize me to do is to go back to Ambassador Walker and Senator Helms and say, ‘The United States Air Force will do everything in its power to accomplish this rather difficult task.’ That’s all I need from you now.”

He said, “Sure, Harry, go ahead.” So that’s what I did, while Gen. Pickett was scrambling around to find aircraft, including fighters and everything else late in the evening.

I went back over to the Hilton Hotel and duly reported that the Air Force would do everything that it possibly could. Ambassador “Dixie” Walker tried to be a soothing and calming voice. He was also pointing out to the Senator how this would be received by the South Korean Government and public.

One of those little “light bulbs” went on in my mind. I guess that’s what Political Officers are supposed to do.

I began to think about the press. I went over to this not very pleasant staffer of Senator Helms and said, “Incidentally, while we’re thinking about all of these other things, I’d like some instructions on what to tell the press.”

I don’t remember what I was thinking. However, I saw what looked like a startled look on this guy’s face.

He said, “Well, we don’t have to talk to the press.”

I pointed out to him that this was “the most important story in the world at the moment.” Newsmen were flying in to Kimpo Airport in Seoul. We already had about eight requests for interviews with Senator Helms. I said that he didn’t have to say anything but I wondered whether the Senator would want to ignore the press. Those who were unfriendly to him who might put a bad spin on this story. He looked sort of thunderstruck.

It had not occurred to this guy.

Anyway, there were some huddles, consultations, and so forth.

I don’t know what tT-37his aspect played in the Senator’s decision not to leave Seoul that night. He changed his mind. So then I was able to phone Gen. John Pickett and say, “This is the best call that you could expect to receive this evening. Senator Helms has decided to stay in Seoul tonight.”

By God, Gen. Pickett had made the arrangements! He had earmarked a T-37 [small, twin-engined passenger jet] flown in from someplace like Kadena Airport in Okinawa. He already had the fighters there and he was going to ensure that the fighters would be visible to the Senator.

Q: Fly under one wing of the T-37, then fly under the other wing. [Laughter].

DUNLOP: But it turned out that we didn’t have to put the Air Force through that, other than what we’d already put them through. The T-37 had already flown in from Okinawa. The Air Force should have sent Senator Helms a bill for the travel of one airplane to Seoul to pick up the Senator. That would be about $1 million or $550,000, or something like that.

Anyway, that was one aspect of the story of KAL Flight 007….Every time a crisis happened involving the communists in North Korea we in the Embassy and the U.S. Government had a lot of hand-holding to do with the South Korean authorities. We did not have a relationship with the South Koreans that made us totally confident that they wouldn’t do something not only weird but, perhaps, dangerous, if they felt themselves under threat. We were not totally confident that they would consult with us and would take our advice which, I am sure, was given to them many times, to act in a “restrained” way, to think twice, and to avoid doing anything which could make a bad situation worse.

 

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