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James Oberg
Aug 11, ‘93

As other old mysteries about the September 1, 1983 Korean airliner tragedy become clearer and clearer, one particular issue stands out more strongly. What happened to the bodies of the 269 people aboard the aircraft? Russian reports in particular have recently stressed this mystery in order to promote the theory that there really was nobody on board, the aircraft was a prepared provocation, and any possible “missing passengers” had died elsewhere by someone else’s hands. The “empty aircraft” version, however, is bunk.

My Russian colleagues still suffer from “information deprivation” on this question, because to the best of my awareness no Russian newspaper has ever reported on the vast amount of personal effects and the two bodies found along the north coast of Hokkaido in the days after the crash. Some of the material (such as identification cards, or clothes with tags) was directly traceable to passengers on this particular flight. The two badly-mangled bodies could not be identified but no other source of such human remains has been suggested. The presence of this material, however, argues strongly that much (if not most) floatable debris was swept away from the area of the crash site by the ocean currents.

Testimony by Russian divers shows that there were body fragments on the bottom at the crash site, but these were small and scattered. The presence of recovered personal effects along the west coast of Sakhalin also very strongly suggests that human remains should have been recovered there as well. The extreme Soviet official sensitivity to these questions during the Nevelsk visit suggests that some remains were in fact recovered and secretly disposed of. The widely-circulated and uncorroborated rumor of the black smoke seen coming from a long-unused Nevelsk crematorium cannot serve as reliable evidence for any such disposal. But several private reports allege that some remains were secretly buried on Sakhalin.

The predictable condition of human bodies after a KAL-007-type impact is also subject to confusion. In cases where an aircraft comes apart at high altitude, the bodies are scattered, reach terminal velocity in air, and generally are not dismembered by water impact. In cases were military jet aircraft crash into the sea, the extremely strong fuselage tends to protect any bodies and to preserve them against aquatic biota.

But in rare large-fuselage intact water impacts, the cabin interior becomes transformed catastrophically and briefly into a maelstrom of metal and human fragments. Both the aircraft and contents essentially disintegrate. Recovered cabin debris (such as metal silverware) show graphically that this condition occurred aboard KAL-007. Combined with the buoyant filtering effect of the heavier material sinking while the lighter material floated off on the strong currents, the resulting scarcity of human remains among the aircraft debris on the sea bottom should not have been surprising.

The action of sea bottom biota such as cuttlefish (a type of crustacean) can also contribute to the loss of recognizable human remains. Their vigorous scavenging can consume exposed flesh within a few weeks. This has been observed at other marine disasters. Siltage and other camouflaging effects of bottom mud can help cover up or at least make unrecognizable any remaining bone fragments.

In grappling with this gruesome topic, which is extremely painful to relatives and friends of the victims and to a lesser degree to any sensitive human beings anywhere, analysts must not succumb to any faulty analogies with dissimilar aviation accidents. If there is a lingering question over this, then an experiment is called for: prepare cages with dead animals, including severely dismembered and chopped up carcasses, and lower these wide-barred cages to the sea floor off Sakhalin for a month. See how much even reaches the sea bottom without floating out between the bars. See how much then remains after a month. Mix any remains in the mud and see how much (if any) is even recognizable. Only at that point will one be able to say with confidence that human remains should or should not have behaved differently in this tragic case.

But this knowledge can offer scant comfort to the agonized uncertainties of the victims’ dear ones.


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