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Escaping North Korea



Rob Hardy


The behavior of North Korea among the community of nations has been problematic for decades. There have been recent aspects that have a comic-opera silliness about them, like the faked photos of a supposedly successful missile testing, or Kim Jong Un's tantrum over a terrapin farm that wasn't producing the lobsters he wanted, or the nation's reaction to the movie The Interview. It isn't silly, though, that North Korea has nuclear arms, or has the most repressive political system in the world with many documented crimes against humanity. The monstrous government came into being with Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and the history of how this happened is one part of the story within The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom (Viking) by Blaine Harden. Harden wrote Escape from Camp 14, published in 2012, about a young man's harrowing escape from a North Korean slave labor camp. A reader of that book called him to see if Harden had ever heard of the pilot who stole a MiG from North Korea in 1953. Harden had not, whereupon the caller laughed a little and suggested that Harden might be better informed. The caller was the pilot himself, the former No Kum Sok, and Harden did get better informed, and has brought out a fascinating book that is an excellent primer of North Korean history.



Harden's book switches short chapters between Kim Il Sung and No Kum Sok. Kim was 25 in 1937 when he lead a guerrilla attack against a little town controlled by the Japanese. It was a tiny and strategically insignificant success, but he gradually parlayed it into tyranny. He got a boost to his reputation when the Japanese afterward put him on a most-wanted list. When he returned to Korea after World War II, he remained within the part of the peninsula controlled by the Soviets. He rose from anonymity by fawning over Stalin, praising him in every speech with effusive appellations like "the Sun of Mankind" or "The Glorious Leader of Worldwide Revolution." Stalin didn't mind having a puppet in Korea, but thought Kim of little consequence; in China, Mao had an even lower opinion of Kim.




Kim mixed praise of Stalin with entreaties to be allowed to invade South Korea, and promised that it would be a swift, inexpensive victory especially because the Americans would not enter the fight. Stalin was hesitant to confront the US in the region, but eventually was worn down and gave Kim permission to invade the south, an invasion starting 25 June 1950. His troops took over most of South Korea, but when the Americans indeed fought back, Kim lost half his army and plenty of the weapons that Stalin had supplied. US bombers initially found it easy to pulverize North Korea's cities, but the air supremacy was countered eventually by Soviet MiGs. Russia and China wound up running the war, but Kim took advantage of the devastation, blaming political rivals and then purging them. He begged reconstruction aid at the same time he was building labor camps and prison farms. His propaganda efforts made him loved, or at least feared, by his people, but his efforts to make North Korea financially stable and strong were a failure. He died in 1994; his North Korea had never been able to survive without huge handouts.



No Kum Sok was born in 1932, and inherited his father's admiration for America. The father made a good living working for a Japanese firm in Korea, and No had a comfortable childhood. He learned Japanese in school, and at twelve he even wanted to become a kamikaze pilot. His father called him crazy, and he began to understand that keeping to the Japanese way was only pragmatic. He eventually realized that America would win the war, and he enjoyed dreaming of a good life in the United States. Expressing such goals could be dangerous, but No took a most circuitous route to make it happen. When he was sixteen, he saw the Great Leader Kim give a rousing speech from atop a mound of fertilizer, but he mistrusted Kim and communism. He developed a long-term strategy of becoming the most fervent and visible supporter of the government and of communism, all the time looking for a way out.



This got him into the naval academy and into flight training. He did alright in school, but deliberately excelled in the course about Soviet Communist Party History. He thought he'd get years of training before being sent to war, but he was wrong; he became the youngest pilot in North Korea. He flew scores of missions, but he refrained from entering into dogfights with the Americans; they had better jets and also he didn't want to shoot down an American pilot. For almost six years he kept up his image as a devout communist. He got trained to fly the MiG-15 fighter, and eventually on 21 September 1953, not long after the ceasefire that ended the Korean War, he took off on a training mission but flew south. The Americans at Kimpo Air Force Base had no idea he was coming; he was lucky that the radar was turned off for maintenance. He nearly hit an American fighter plane on the runway, but safely climbed down from his plane once he had brought it to a stop. The American airmen were astonished, but had trouble finding out what was going on; No's one English word was "motorcar," which was insufficient explanation, no matter how often he repeated it.



The Americans assumed No had been lured because of "Operation Moolah," a simple bribe of $100,000 to anyone who could bring them a MiG. Leaflets had been dropped over North Korea to advertise the scheme, and radio broadcasts had announced it, but No had not heard of Operation Moolah; he was simply making his escape to freedom and to become an American. It was a great propaganda coup for the Americans. No helped out with explaining all about the plane, which was taken apart for analysis and eventually wound up at the Air Force Museum in Dayton. Because he had not really brought the plane for a reward, there was some reluctance to pay the money, but eventually he got it, as a start to his life as an American engineer, family man, and businessman, now retired and living in Daytona Beach, Florida. It was a happy ending for him, though not for the associates he left behind in North Korea, nor for millions of impoverished and starving North Koreans. Besides telling No's exciting story (with the assistance of newly declassified documents), Harden has explained how from the beginning North Korea has harnessed American aggression, real and imagined, to keep its tyrannical family in power. The Cold War, in which No played a striking role, has yet to end.





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