The Fighter Pilot and the Great Leader


NED President Carl Gershman reviewed Blaine Harden’s new book on North Korea for the Wall Street Journal (March 17, 2015).

North Korea is a nuclear-armed rogue state that threatens its neighbors and runs the world’s most repressive political system. Understanding that system is not easy, since the country is closed to international human-rights monitors and independent media. But the testimony of a growing number of defectors—supplemented by satellite photographs of prison camps where hundreds of thousands of people have died from forced labor, starvation and execution—has led a United Nations Commission of Inquiry and many independent analysts to conclude that the North Korean government is guilty of committing crimes against humanity.

Blaine Harden’s “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot” explains in part how this monstrous system came into being. He focuses on two individuals: the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, who rose to absolute power after World War II; and No Kum Sok, a young North Korean fighter pilot who flew his MiG to freedom shortly after the end of the Korean War in 1953. The narrative toggles back and forth between the events of their lives. By contrasting these emblematic figures, Mr. Harden has produced a riveting book that makes the history of North Korea accessible to the general reader.

Kim Il Sung came to prominence in 1937, at the age of 25, when he led a guerrilla raid against a small town controlled by the Japanese. It was “a strategically insignificant pinprick,” according to Mr. Harden, and while Kim’s reputation benefited when the Japanese put him on a list of most-wanted Red bandits, he was “an unannounced nobody” when he returned to the Soviet-controlled part of the Korean Peninsula after World War II. He rose to power by selling himself to Stalin as a loyal puppet—a fawning “poodle,” according to Mr. Harden. Stalin considered Kim “a man of no consequence,” and Mao also held him in contempt, viewing him as aggressive, doctrinaire and rash.

He was. Kim obsessively pressed Stalin for the green light to invade the South, promising that the Americans wouldn’t fight and that victory would be swift and cheap. Not being able to go to war, he told Stalin’s ambassador in Pyongyang, was taking a “personal toll” on him. Stalin was reluctant, fearing a confrontation with the United States. But following the Communist victory in China and a statement by Secretary of State Dean Acheson (confirmed by Soviet intelligence) excluding the Korean Peninsula from the American defensive perimeter, Stalin concluded that the situation had tilted in favor of war and gave Kim permission to invade, which he did on June 25, 1950.

Kim’s troops were initially successful, occupying most of South Korea. But the Americans fought back and turned the tide with devastating effect. Kim lost half his soldiers and most of his Soviet-supplied weapons. U.S. bombers pulverized most of North Korea’s major cities. Kim was rescued by Soviet MiGs, which neutralized U.S. air supremacy, and by the Chinese army, which Mao unleashed to prevent U.S. domination of the Korean Peninsula.

Kim had been marginalized and emasculated by the big Communist powers, who ran the war without consulting him. But he survived and turned the devastation to his advantage—85% of the structures in the country had been destroyed in the fighting and as much as one-fifth of the population. He purged political rivals whom he blamed for the calamity; built the gulag and the loyalty-based songbun caste system, allegedly to protect a traumatized society against traitors; and used the sympathy generated by the destruction to milk the “fraternal” Communist countries for reconstruction aid. His introduction of the juche philosophy of self-reliance, according to Mr. Harden, was Kim’s way of telling the world that “North Korea would never again be a plaything of the great powers.” But it was a beggar nation when Kim died in 1994, just before a disastrous famine claimed the lives of more than a million people.

No Kum Sok was 16 years old in February 1948, when he heard Kim pledge to a large gathering at a fertilizer plant in Hungnam that he would liberate the entire Korean Peninsula and destroy the “enslavement policies” of the “American imperialists and their stooges.”

Mr. No—who lives today in Florida, having emigrated to the United States in 1954—wanted nothing to do with it. He had inherited his father’s sympathy for America. He tried unsuccessfully to escape in 1949 and then quickly learned that to survive he had to pretend to be a fervent Communist. He did that so well that he was admitted to flight school and, at 19, became the youngest fighter pilot on either side of the Korean War.

But from the start, his goal was to steal a plane and fly away. That opportunity didn’t come until six weeks after the war ended, but he didn’t hesitate to take it, turning south out of a training loop and landing at an American air base, nearly hitting a U.S. F-86 Sabre jet whose pilot shouted over the radio, “It’s a goddamn MiG!” Mr. No knew that any associates he left behind would be executed, and five of them were, including a lieutenant in the air force who was his best friend. But he never once regretted his decision to escape.

The Americans could never understand why Mr. No had fled. They assumed he was responding to a plan they had dreamed up called Operation Moolah that promised $100,000 to the first Communist pilot who defected in a late-model MiG. But when he flew the plane into South Korea, Mr. No knew nothing about the reward. They couldn’t believe that the pilot just wanted freedom.

This wasn’t their only mistake. According to Mr. Harden, the American carpet bombing of civilian targets was not just inhuman but also “a propaganda gift” that the Kim family has used until this day to legitimize its rule and inflame anti-Americanism. Still, South Korea is a free society today because the U.S. responded to Kim’s aggression. That’s something worth remembering as America must now decide how to respond to new threats in our troubled world.