Author Blaine Harden, who grew up in Moses Lake, talks about his new book, “King of Spies,” about North Korea and its tormented relationship with America.
Seattle author Blaine Harden has become an expert on North Korea, a country shackled by a tragic past and a fraught present. He’s written about a harrowing escape from a North Korean labor camp (“Escape from Camp 14”) and a North Korean pilot who flew a MiG-15 Soviet jet out of North Korea and into the hands of the Americans (“The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot”). But the true story he tells in his third book, “King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea,” (Viking, 260 pp., $27) may be the strangest of the three.
Donald Nichols was a seventh-grade dropout who enlisted in the U.S. military to escape the dire poverty of his upbringing. After World War II he finagled a posting to South Korea. Armed with nothing but a facility with languages and a facile intelligence, Nichols ingratiated himself with the dictatorial South Korean leader Syngman Rhee and began spying for the U.S. and the South Koreans — at the peak of his power during the Korean War, he commanded 52 Air Force officers and airmen and 900 Korean agents, gathering priceless information on bombing targets in North Korea.
Nichols was brilliant, relentless, and entirely without a conscience. “He dropped people out of airplanes,” says Harden. “It’s almost like a Tony Soprano kind of thing. You can be a manager and also be a very violent individual.” And then he fell from grace, was declared mentally ill by military doctors and evacuated out of the country. Late in life he was disgraced by revelations of sexual abuse of minors.
The author of “King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea” will speak
at 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (free; 206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com, free), and at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at Folio, the Seattle Athenaeum ($10 at the door; $5 for Folio members; 206-398-9050 or folioseattle.org)
Harden, a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, grew up in Moses Lake. He answered some questions about his new book, about North Korea and its tormented relationship with America. This is an edited version of that conversation:
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Q: How did you become an expert on North and South Korea?
A: My last posting for The Washington Post was in Tokyo, covering northeast Asia. When I was there, my boss flew to Tokyo to have lunch with me. He said, “You’ve been writing these cute stories about Japan, and they’re nice. (But) unless you start writing stories about Korea, particularly North Korea, I’m not going to be happy about it at all.”
I think he wanted to scare me. Reporting about North Korea is a slog, and it takes a lot of patience to deal with the defectors. They are paranoid, and rightly so.
Q: Donald Nichols lacked even a high-school education, and his first military assignments were to a motor pool and a morgue. How did he manage to become a spy?
A: I think he was able to do what he did because the Koreas were a backwater. (After World War II), nobody in the U.S. military wanted to go there. They much preferred Japan, a place where things were rapidly getting better and life was good. Korea was just a mess.
But Nichols went there, and he was young, really smart and really good on the ground. He became pretty good in Korean pretty quickly, and there were almost no Americans who spoke Korean. … Then he befriended the 70-year-old Syngman Rhee. Rhee was really good at finding Americans he could exploit. He found Nichols — and Nichols exploited him.
Q: He seemed to have a lot of native intelligence, but no moral compass.
A: Part of it was his lack of education, part of it was his ambition. Part of it was his character. He just didn’t have a problem hanging around with torturers. He was very close to a number of people in Rhee’s government who were murdering tens of thousands of people. That all happened during the invisible Korean civil war before the war started. He became the essential intelligence agent while remaining invisible to the press … he remained basically invisible until my book came out, other than (attention from) some military specialists and a few Korean historians.
Q: He did seem like an almost perfect spy, intelligent and amoral, and also resourceful and brave.
A: His aide-de-camp, Serbando Torres, explained to me that Nichols was a braggart and an exaggerator, but he was never worried about physical risks to himself. He realized the value of the North Korean code breakers he had put together before the war. When it looked like the American army was about to be pushed off the Korean Peninsula altogether, he got knowledge to the generals that was incredibly key to the Americans not losing the war. He was just 26 years old at that point, a cunning power player in American intelligence … So many things he did were valuable, but so many things he did were interlayered with the need for more power. He had his own army, his own base, and a direct line to the commander of troops.
Q:After reading your book I understand better why the North Korea regime hates the U.S. so much — you write that the U.S. bombing campaign during the war destroyed nearly all of the country’s cities and towns, that napalm and conventional explosives razed 85 percent of its buildings, and that a million North Koreans may have died.
A: One of the virtues of this book is that it is an American story, but you read it and you understand a bit more of the North Korean perspective on the U.S. The North Korean people are held in a kind of suspended animation. The bombing and the suffering is still immediate for them. I think what this story does is make the suffering of North Korea immediate and gives you an understanding of what they are thinking now.
Q: A bad relationship seems to be getting worse.
A: Bigger and bigger nuclear devices and the ability to deliver them to the United States has really changed the story. Now the system has the potential to kill millions in the United States. Is it a defensive strategy, or do they have designs to use this as a way of intimidating the U.S. from not intervening if North Korea attacks South Korea again? If there was a possibility of hitting an American city, would the U.S. intervene to protect a very distant South Korea?