President Reagan called last night for "justice and action" in response to the "Soviet crime" of shooting down a South Korean commercial airliner but imposed only the mildest of U.S. government sanctions on the Soviets.
The president indicated that he is relying instead on international retaliation for what he called "the Korean airline massacre" in which 269 passengers and crew members perished. Canada yesterday became the first nation to respond to intensive U.S. diplomatic efforts to promote such international action when it suspended Soviet commercial landing rights for 60 days.
In his nationally televised speech from the Oval Office last night, Reagan played a tape recording of air-to-ground reports from two Soviet jet fighter pilots before and during the time one of them shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 with a heat-seeking missile.
Just after 3:26 a.m. Seoul time, the pilot of a Soviet Su15 fighter radioed the Soviet ground station, "I have executed the launch," according to the U.S. government translation of the tape recording.
Two seconds later the Soviet pilot reported, "The target is destroyed."
Five seconds later he said, "I am breaking off attack."
Reagan called this an attack by "the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere."
"From every corner of the globe the word is defiance in the face of this unspeakable act and defiance of the system which excuses it and seeks to cover it up," Reagan said. "With our horror and our sorrow, there is a righteous and terrible anger. It would be easy to think in terms of vengeance, but that is not a proper answer. We want justice and action to see that this never happens again."
Shortly before the president spoke, the Reagan administration announced three unilateral actions against the Soviets that one official described as little more than "a symbolic flyspeck."
These actions include suspending negotiations on a cultural agreement, suspending negotiations on a consulate the United States wants to open in the Soviet city of Kiev, and suspending renewal of a transportation agreement with the Soviets that is of so little consequence it could not be described by a senior administration official who briefed reporters before the president's speech.
Reagan also said he has "reaffirmed" an order canceling the landing rights of the Soviet airline Aeroflot in the United States, which his administration had made in December, 1981, in response to repression in Poland.
Despite his denunciation of Soviet conduct in the incident as "murderous" and an "act of barbarism," Reagan said that "we must not give up our effort to bring them into the world community of nations," and that for this reason he is not suspending nuclear arms-control negotiations with the Soviets at Geneva.
" . . . We cannot, we must not, give up our effort to reduce the arsenals of destructive weapons threatening the world," he said.
The president said he will work with the 13 other nations who had citizens aboard the South Korean airliner to seek reparations for the families of the victims.
"The United States will be making a claim against the Soviet Union within the next week to obtain compensation for the benefit of the victims' survivors," Reagan said. "Such compensation is an absolute moral duty which the Soviets must assume."
However, senior administration officials who briefed reporters before the speech said the Soviets had not paid reparations in past incidents, such as the shooting down of another South Korean plane in 1978 in which two persons were killed. "I am not at this stage particularly hopeful that they will agree to reparations," one of the officials said.
Other actions announced by Reagan last night, which had been disclosed previously by administration officials, include an effort to press the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency, to investigate the incident and a request that Congress "pass a joint resolution of condemnation of this Soviet crime."
During the past few days the United States has been engaged in a quiet diplomatic offensive aimed at persuading other nations to act "spontaneously" together in retaliation to the Soviets.
In addition to the 60-day Canadian suspension of Aeroflot landing rights in Montreal, which Reagan mentioned in his speech, France announced the postponement of an important visit to Paris by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko only hours before it was to have taken place.
This means that the first time the airliner incident will be raised with Gromyko by a western diplomat will be Thursday when the Soviet foreign minister is scheduled to meet Secretary of State George P. Shultz in Madrid during a conference to review the 1975 Helsinki accords.
"If he Gromyko does come to the meeting, Secretary Shultz is going to present him with our demands for disclosure of the facts, corrective action and concrete assurances that such a thing will not happen again and that restitution will be made," Reagan said in his televised speech.
There appears to be little the United States can do to retaliate effectively against the Soviets in the international field of civil aviation.
The only time that any formal action has been taken by the ICAO was in 1973 when its 33-nation council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Israelis for shooting down a Libyan passenger flight and killing 106 persons. That action, however, included no sanctions.
The council is the executive body of ICAO and is more or less continuously in session. The full ICAO assembly meets once every three years. The next meeting is scheduled to begin in Montreal Sept. 20. U.S. officials have considered seeking an earlier, emergency session to react to the Flight 007 incident.
The United States and Canada attempted during a rash of international hijackings in the mid-1970s to get the ICAO assembly to deny air service to countries harboring hijackers, a proposal aimed at Afghanistan. It failed to win the two-thirds majority needed.
However, the United States and the six other western nations at the Bonn economic summit in July, 1978, agreed to deny air service to Afghanistan and landing rights to Ariana, the Afghani airline. That action remains in effect.
That type of approach, U.S. officials said, has a much better chance of succeeding than an attempt to act through ICAO, where a resolution of condemnation is certain to be countered by charges from the Soviets or their allies that the Korean Air Lines plane was spying.
Quoting senator Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), who died of a heart attack the day after the South Korean airliner was shot down, Reagan said that "the greatest threat the United States now faces is the Soviet Union."
"But Sen. Jackson said," Reagan continued, "if America maintains a strong deterrent--and only if it does--this nation will continue to be a leader in the crucial quest for enduring peace among nations."
Reagan also paid tribute to "brave people like Kathryn McDonald," the widow of one of the people who died aboard Flight 007, representative Larry McDonald (D-Ga.).
In his speech last night, Reagan cited the Soviet action as evidence for his policy of "peace through strength."
That phrase, a favorite of Reagan's, was balanced with a pledge never to give up "our effort to bring peace closer through mutual, verifiable reduction in the weapons of war."
Reagan worked on the speech for several hours yesterday, making some changes in his own handwriting in a third draft that had been prepared by speechwriter Ben Elliott on the basis of suggestions made by Reagan's national security staff, the State and Defense departments and the CIA.
Shultz and his wife, Obie, watched the speech with Nancy Reagan in the White House and were joined afterward by the president, according to an official.