A Cold War Air Tragedy in Art

 The horrifying painted image that exploded from the front cover of Time magazine on 12 September 1983 brought to public realisation one of the single greatest tragedies of the Cold War – the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL007) on the first of that month.

The civilian flight from New York City to Seoul, via Anchorage, was approaching its final destination when it was intercepted by Soviet military aircraft over the Sea of Japan. The pilots had mistakenly strayed into Soviet airspace and fighter jets were scrambled to encounter what was suspected to be a US spy plane. The Soviet Air Forces made the grave decision to destroy the plane with air-to-air missiles. All 269 people aboard were killed, including 105 Korean passengers and crew, 62 Americans, 28 Japanese, and others from a total of 16 different countries.

Two weeks later, the Soviets located the airplane wreckage and flight recorders on the bottom of the sea, although this would not become public knowledge for many years. Initially the government of Yuri Andropov denied his country’s involvement in the incident. Once evidence forced Andropov to admit that the Soviet Air Forces had indeed downed the plane, he maintained that it had been a “sophisticated provocation masterminded by the US special services with the use of a South Korean plane”. The Soviet government continued to conceal evidence from the International Civil Aviation Organization investigating the flight. The full story would only come to light after the dissolution of the USSR, when in 1992 Russia finally released the cockpit voice recorder transcript. On the 30th anniversary of the incident, CNN published a compelling account of this episode.

On 1 September every year, relatives of the deceased gather to remember those killed in the tragedy at the KAL Memorial Tower at National Mang-Hyang Cemetery in Cheonan, South Korea. The cemetery was constructed in 1976 and is devoted to Korean nationals who have died in foreign countries. The towering central monument stands above a shrine, its bisected form resembling the wings of an airplane and connecting the earth and sky. Relief sculptures are carved on either side of the shrine, while two dramatic freestanding group sculptures recall the lives lost.

On the left hand side, the neoclassical statue is formed of fifteen women entwined in their grief. While thirteen of the mourners are shown stooped and with heads bowed, one holding a wreath and an older woman embracing a young girl, two figures at the front of the group enact formal funereal rites: one standing and holding to her chest what appears to be an urn; and one kneeling with a flaming torch. The sculpture on the right hand side instead shows an image of resurgence. The people have arisen, and a group of young men and women are shown on their feet with arms raised, carrying banners forward in a show of determination. Little information about the monument is available in English language, including details of the architect and sculptor, yet it is worthy of wider attention as one of the most poignant and effective monuments to the Cold War.

Two further monuments to the tragedy stand on islands to the north and south of the crash site. In the city of Wakkanai, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, a 90-foot tower marks the spot when some of the victims’ bodies and belongings were washed ashore after the crash. The tower is constructed from 269 white stones, each representing one of the deceased. Meanwhile, on the island of Sakahlin, a distant outpost at the edge of Russia’s territory, a small cemetery marker pays tribute to the victims.

The sorry tale of KAL007 was brought back to international attention in July 2014, when in a tragic repeat of history, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was downed over eastern Ukraine. Despite obstruction from the Russian-backed insurgents in the region, overwhelming evidence has led the international investigators to conclude that the airliner was downed by a Russia-supplied Buk surface-to-air missile, by pro-Russian fighters who likely misidentified the commercial plane as a military aircraft. In a repetition of the 1983 incident, the Kremlin has blocked the investigation, fuelled conspiracy theories that the flight was instead brought down by a Ukraininan military jet, and so far no one has been held accountable for the deaths of the 283 passengers and 15 crew.

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Images: Top three – KAL Memorial Tower, National Mang-Hyang Cemetery, South Korea. Courtesy KAL 007 Famlies and Friends Facebook page. Bottom – Monument to Korean Airlines Flight 007, Hokkaido, Japan. Courtesy shirokazan on flickr.

One thought on “A Cold War Air Tragedy in Art

  1. I regularly read Physics Today at the time, and was impressed by the large number of physicists aboard that flight passing so near Kamchatka when SDI was under development. Mattheus Rust basically ended all hopes and bluffs of the Kremlin surviving cruise missile retaliation and the dictatorship wilted under a fog of Chernobyl fallout. No big loss.

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