Blaine Harden’s book “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot” interweaves two stories: that of North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung and No Kum Sok, a Korean fighter pilot who stole a jet and flew it to freedom. Harden discusses his book Friday, March 27, at Town Hall Seattle.
After publishing “Escape From Camp 14,” an account of escape from North Korea, Seattle author Blaine Harden received an unexpected call. The man on the other end, now called Kenneth Rowe, had escaped North Korea in 1953 by flying out a MiG-15 jet fighter. Would Harden like to tell his story?
He would. The pilot’s story is one of two in Harden’s new book, “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot” (Viking, 290 pp., $27.95). The other story is of Kim Il Sung, who established the communist dynasty still run by his grandson, Kim Jong Un.
It’s odd to interweave biographies of two people who never met, but there is a reason for it. The pilot’s escape itself is too simple to make a book of. He flew over the border and landed at a U.S. base in a few minutes. The real story is the before and after, and the circumstances of the Korean War.
The author of “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 27, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 and available at townhallseattle.org. Information: 206-652-4255.
Hence the second biography, that of Kim Il Sung, who Harden says “looked like a Chinese waiter in a bad suit.” Kim was a relentless schemer and self-promoter who flattered, betrayed and murdered his way to power.
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Using the dual biographies, Harden tells a story of the Korean War few Americans have heard. Kim Il Sung starts the war by misjudging President Truman, and has to be rescued by his unhappy sponsors — by the Chinese on the ground and the Russians in the air. Yet Kim has his strength. Harden credits him with a “lifelong ability to take a punch, stay on his feet and creatively find a way to survive.”
The pilot’s story begins with foreign influence. In the 1930s and 1940s, the boy born as No Kum Sok grows up in an affluent household in Japanese-colonized Korea, playing baseball and speaking Japanese at school.
At the end of World War II, the Russian army rolls in, loots the shops and terrorizes the women. The Russians also end the good life for the boy, whose father works for a Japanese construction company.
In the late 1940s, his father dies, and No Kum Sok has to hide his social origins to get ahead in the new communist state. He joins the naval academy and eventually becomes a MiG pilot. He finds the Russian pilots much more civilized than the soldiers of the occupying army. He flies many missions against the U.S. F-86 Sabres, hoping not to get shot down by American pilots before he can defect.
Harden tells some stories on his own side. U.S. bombing of North Korean civilians was horrendous. And U.S. pilots did not always stay out of China, as Americans were told.
Harden also tells the story of the $100,000 reward promised to No Kum Sok, which was almost taken away because President Eisenhower thought it was wrong to pay a pilot who stole his country’s airplane.
Even readers who think they know about the Korean War will find things in this book that will surprise them.