THE GREAT LEADER AND THE FIGHTER PILOT
By Blaine Harden
Viking, $27.95,290 pages
In September 1953, bold headlines dominated American newspapers. “Mystery Red MIG Lands Near Seoul,” trumpeted the San Francisco Chronicle. The North Korean pilot, Lt. No Kum Suk, aged 21, was so disgusted with the totalitarian state shaped by the Soviet-installed dictator Kim Il Sung that he broke off a training flight to land near Seoul, the South Korean capital.
Early press reports attributed the defection to “Operation Moolah,” the offer of $100,000 (about $900,000 in today’s dollars) to the first North Korean, Russian or Chinese pilot who defected in “a modern, operational, combat-type jet in flying condition” — meaning a Soviet-made MIG fighter, which USSR pilots were secretly flying on combat missions. U.S. planes littered North Korea with more than a million leaflets publicizing the offer.
But to the utter surprise of everyone involved, Lt. No had never heard of the reward. Rather than being a “Moolah Man” he was a brave person determined not to live in a totalitarian communist state. He defected for principle, not money.
Blaine Harden’s skillfully crafted book meshes two stories. First is how the Soviets installed Kim Il Sung as dictator of North Korea in 1945. Essentially a faux “hero” of the war against the Japanese, Kim’s utility was that of willing toady. With Soviet power at his command, he crushed any hopes of a free society, brutalizing his own people.
No Kum Suk chafed under Kim’s iron-hand rule. In the pre-World War II era, his father was an executive in an industrial plant owned by the occupying Japanese. The father accepted Japanese rule as a way of life, as did his son. Indeed, in the waning months of the war, Lt. No wanted to volunteer as a kamikaze pilot to attack American warships. “Are you crazy?” shouted his father.
Lt. No’s attitude toward America changed dramatically once Kim and his communist masters took over Korea. Heavy-handed propaganda was belied by the hungry misery of everyday life. (Nonetheless, more than two decades ago, research by CIA analyst Helen-Louise Hunter concluded that Kim Il Sung’s propaganda permanently influenced several generations of North Koreans).
Not the curious No, who sought American magazines. One picture that stuck in his mind depicted an American couple riding in an auto, a happy dog poking his head out the window. “The dog lived better than he did,” No decided. He realized his teachers were liars; at age 13, he began dreaming of “stealing away to America.”
As a route, he chose the North Korean air force, and he had the physical and mental agility to qualify as a pilot. Although he flew combat missions during the Korean War, he deliberately avoided encounters with American planes. Soon after the war ended, a training assignment gave him a chance to flee across the border to Kimpo air base near Seoul. He was free. (Family members were either dead or living beyond Kim’s retaliatory reach.)
Then, a major embarrassment for the U.S. Air Force: President Eisenhower was not aware of — and he definitely did not now approve — the idea of a bounty for an MIG. Even after dogged research, Mr. Harden concedes that the provenance of the offer remains murky. Gen. Mark W. Clark, commander of United Nations forces in Korea, claims it came from Edward Hymoff, a reporter for International News Service in Korea, after “communing with a bottle of brandy.” A psychological warfare unit in Washington also claimed credit.
Whatever, Eisenhower privately was upset by “the ethics of the case.” Keeping the MIG and paying the reward would violate terms of the armistice that had ended fighting only months earlier. “If we get accused of violating the spirit of the armistice and this argument makes any headway with neutrals and even some of our friends, I think we will experience a defeat in this so-called psychological warfare,” he wrote. (Two Polish fliers had defected with MIGs earlier in 1953, landing on an island off Denmark).
But Ike was wise enough to say nothing publicly lest the United States be accused of reneging on the offer. (Lt. No first learned of the objections from Mr. Harden). CIA officers arranged for the money to be paid serially through a trust. He used part of it to earn a degree at the University of Delaware (Americanizing his name to Kenneth H. Rowe) and embarked on a career as an aerospace engineer. He and his family now live, modestly, in Florida.
He finds “maddening” the notion he fled for money. “As a free man in the land of his childhood dreams,” Mr. Harden concludes, “he believes he needed no one’s help to become successful.”
• Joseph C. Goulden’s 18 nonfiction books include “Korea: The Untold Story of the War” (Times Books, 1982).