88. Memorandum From Secretary of State Shultz to President Reagan1


  • U.S. Response to Soviet Attack on Korean Airliner: Current Status and Next Steps

As you return for Saturday’s NSC meeting,2 I want to review for you the situation with regard to the Korean airliner and the next steps we are working on for your consideration.3

The Current Situation

The Soviet attack on an unarmed civilian aircraft resulting in the deaths of two hundred sixty-nine people, including approximately thirty-five Americans, was a callous and brutal act that is certain to have far-reaching international impact. It is obvious that our own bilateral relations with the Soviet Union cannot remain unaffected by a fresh and particularly irresponsible Soviet resort to force and violence. Indeed, we have already taken some unilateral punitive steps, and we will need to consider other possibilities in the days and weeks ahead. At the same time, we must also ensure that the Soviets pay the full political costs of their actions in ways which go well beyond the US-Soviet bilateral relationship. Thus, it is essential that we work to build and [Page 303] sustain the broadest possible international response to this appalling act.

Twenty-four hours after the Korean aircraft was shot down there remain a number of gaps in our knowledge of the events leading up to the attack. For example, it remains unclear how the Korean flight crew could have strayed so far off course and within Soviet airspace. It is not entirely certain whether the pilots of the Soviet interceptors knew that the Korean aircraft was a civilian airliner, although some evidence suggests that they did. The extent of involvement in the incident by Soviet ground controllers and higher authorities in Moscow is also unclear. However, it is clear beyond any doubt that Soviet aircraft did move into close proximity before firing at the airliner and that the attack was carried out in disregard for the loss of life that resulted. By any recognized standards of international law and conduct, the Soviet attack must be regarded as deliberate and unjustified.

Moreover, the Soviets have sidestepped our diplomatic efforts to elicit an explanation of the incident. As you know, Larry Eagleburger called in Soviet Chargé Sokolov this morning to demand an explanation. This afternoon Sokolov telephoned Rick Burt to convey a “personal message” from Gromyko to me that acknowledges Soviet interception of the airliner but not a Soviet role in its destruction. I instructed Rick to inform Sokolov that Gromyko’s response was totally inadequate and to reiterate our insistence on a satisfactory explanation of the affair. We have issued a public statement to this effect.4

As you know, CINCPAC is already conducting a search and rescue mission in the area where the aircraft appears to have gone down. We plan to request access to Soviet territorial waters to facilitate this search, and to pave the way for possible salvage operations later on.

Elements of a U.S. Response

As you know, we have formed an interagency task force to examine the various aspects of the case, and to consider different responses that the U.S. and other concerned nations could take. The U.S. response must involve both steps in our bilateral relationship and a far-reaching effort to build and sustain a strong international response. We have thus far identified the following general areas for action.

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A. Bilateral Steps

1. We have already notified the Soviets that the U.S. will not move forward with the planned extension of the bilateral agreement on cooperation in Transportation. This agreement provides for cooperation in various areas of transportation technology, including civil aviation safety and high-speed water-borne transport.

2. We will have to consider urgently what impact this incident should have on my planned meeting with Gromyko at Madrid. I intend to go forward with the meeting and to use it as a vehicle for conveying to the Soviets at Politburo level our strong revulsion at their actions and our determination to respond vigorously.

3. We are in contact with a number of prominent Americans who are planning to travel to the USSR in the near future, including Congressmen Gray, Boxer, and Solarz. We are not actively discouraging their travel, but are recommending that, if they feel they must go ahead with their trips, they convey their views on this incident to the Soviets in the strongest terms.

4. We are instructing our delegation to the international communications conference in Soviet Central Asia this week to spotlight this incident in what they say, and to refuse all Soviet social invitations.

5. We are examining a number of other options for steps across the gamut of our bilateral relations, including in the economic area. For instance, we might consider reviewing all outstanding equipment sales to the Soviet aviation industry, while pressing our allies to undertake similar steps.

B. Multilateral Initiatives

1. We have called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council and will use this forum to condemn the Soviet attack in the strongest possible terms and seek a resolution calling for a special international investigation. In particular, we intend to use the Council debate to expose Soviet efforts to evade responsibility for the attack by including in the U.S. statement verbatim excerpts from the communications of Soviet pilots who fired the missiles. We will be pressing other nations to join with us in issuing condemnatory statements both in the Council debate and outside it.

2. We are urgently considering steps to organize and support international action against Soviet civil aviation interests, particularly Aeroflot international operations and flights by third-country airlines to the Soviet Union. For example, we could seek immediate allied and third-country agreement to refuse to accept Aeroflot flight plans for a specified period. We would pursue actions of this kind within organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization, but much work will also have to be done in bilateral consultations with other [Page 305] nations. In this connection, we are studying ways to exploit the building condemnation of the Soviet attack by private organizations, such as the International Pilots Association.

3. We have looked at the possibility of bringing a case before the International Court of Justice, but this procedure would be time-consuming at best, and probably inconclusive.

C. Public Diplomacy

1. The statements already issued by you and me put us in the correct position of condeming in strongest terms the Soviet attack, while calling on them to explain it if they can.5 By contrast, the weak and evasive Soviet statements issued thus far will only fuel international skepticism of whatever line Moscow may ultimately adopt to “explain” its actions.

2. We have already approached our European and Japanese allies to urge that they issue similar condemnatory statements. The British have already made a strong statement, and we will continue pressing others to follow suit.

3. We will be developing on an urgent basis a public diplomacy strategy to exploit this incident. As we implement this strategy, we must recognize that U.S. leadership will be essential. However, we will want to avoid repetition of the “Olympic Boycott” syndrome in which the U.S. role overshadowed that of other nations and private interests. Instead, the U.S. should encourage initiatives by others and adopt a supporting and facilitating role where possible and appropriate.

I believe that, taken together, these steps put us on the right track in developing the U.S. response to the Soviet attack. We will be constantly reevaluating and exploring new possibilities in the days and weeks ahead, and offering recommendations for your review.

  1. Source: National Security Council, Institutional Files, NSPG Meetings, Box SR 108, NSPG 0068, 2 Sep 83 Soviet Downing of Korean Airliner. Secret; Sensitive.
  2. September 3.
  3. Reagan was at his ranch in California when the shootdown occurred. He returned to Washington on the afternoon of September 2. His diary entry for Friday, September 2 reads: “Then as the week went by the Soviets shot down a Korean Airliner with 269 passengers—53 of them Americans including Cong. Larry McDonald. The traffic in conference calls got heavy. We were due to return to Wash. on Labor Day but realized we couldn’t wait so we left on Fri. It was heartbreaking—I had really looked forward to those last 3 days. When we got in Fri. I went directly to an N.S.C. [NSPG] meeting re the Soviet affair. We’re going to try & persuade our friends to join us in banning Aeroflot flights & in demanding reparations for the victim’s familys.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, vol. I, January 1981–October 1985, p. 259) The NSPG meeting took place on Friday, September 2, in the White House Situation Room from 6 p.m. to 7:57 p.m. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary) See Document 91.
  4. In his memoir, Shultz recounted this meeting: “By 12:30 p.m., we got the first response from the Soviets when Oleg Sokolov came into the State Department. Gromyko, he told us, said KAL 007 was warned off but kept on. Sokolov speculated that the plane probably crashed, adding ‘This is what they told me to tell you,’ a highly unusual comment coming from a Soviet official.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 363)
  5. For Shultz’s press conference at 10:45 a.m. on September 1 and the President’s statement later that day, see Document 84.