Monday, May 11, 2015

"The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot" by Blaine Harden (2015)

On September 21, 1953 a North Korean pilot got into the seat of the MIG-15 to which he was assigned to and flew away to South Korea. The story of Lt. No Kum Sok‘s flight to freedom was a story which instantly dazzled the world. But for the weary Lieutenant No it was the culmination of a dream he had held close since he first saw Kim Il Sung speaking from the top of a pile of fertilizer 7 years earlier. He wanted to go to America.

Blaine Harden has taken one of the most fascinating events of the Korean War and placed it at the center of a unique and highly readable book not only about the man who flew the plane; but also the story of Kim Il Sung and how he got to be on top of that fertilizer pile in the first place.

World War Two was the result of the failure of the Treaty of Versailles to correctly address all of the problems which had sparked that war in the first place. Coupled with the heavy handed financial burdens placed on Germany, the treaty was actually a recipe for the next war.

So it was with the end of World War Two. Treaties and alliances were made which would ultimately shape the post war world and lead to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Against this backdrop were the political positions and politics of countries like Vietnam and Korea in Southeast Asia. Just as with the former colonies in Africa which were abandoned soon after the war ended, the fate of these 2 nations rested upon the needs and desires of the United States and the Soviets.

Kim Il Sung was the product of the war against the Chinese in the 1930’s and then the war against Japan in the 1930’s and 1940’s. By the time the second conflict ended Korea was indiscriminately cleaved in half at the 38th parallel; leaving families torn apart from one another in much the same way that the division of Berlin would do to the German people. The political vacuum left in the North was quickly filled by Kim, who had fashioned himself into the role of “Great Leader” much as Stalin had become “Uncle Joe” and Mao became “Chairman Mao.”

As the United States became somewhat complacent with her place in the post war world, the Russians and the Koreans were scheming to consolidate their positions in the hierarchy of worldwide Communism. There was no dispute that Uncle Joe was the head; it was more a question of how close you could be to the top. And Kim wanted to be there with all his heart.

The Soviet Union had just gotten their first atom bomb when Kim Il Sung decided he wanted to re-unify the two halves of his country. No Kum was just 17 when his father died and his country invaded the South. His family had enjoyed immense privileges under the Japanese rule while working for a Japanese firm. When the war ended so did the family’s largesse.

No Kum did well in school and made sure to spout the “party line” whenever necessary. He was granted entry to North Korea’s fledgling Air Force and trained as a pilot. At the same time Kim Il Sung was asking Uncle Joe for some of the new MIG’s which the Soviets had developed. They were not faster than the Sabre’s flown by American pilots; but they could climb higher, giving them the advantage in surprising our bombers, which were pulverizing North Korean cities. 

When Uncle Joe relented and sent the fighters and pilots to North Korea for the training of the Korean Air Force, No Kum was selected to be among the trainees. Unknown to him at this point was that the US Government had a standing $100,000 reward for anyone who could; or would; steal a combat ready MIG and fly it to the South.

When No Kum finally gets his chance he goes for it, landing in South Korea. From there the book becomes an even more remarkable story, as he learns to fend his way through Western type red tape. He was also used by the CIA and the State Department for propaganda newsreels and press conferences.

This book has a lot to give; and it does so from the very first page. The carpet bombing of North Korea; which killed on a level not seen since the fire bombings of Japan and Germany; is explored in sufficient detail for the reader to actually learn something. And the authors summary of the history of Korea in relation to the Japanese and the Chinese is spot on, and does much to help explain the insanity which came to roost in North Korea and occupies the seat of government to this very day.

No Kum Sok finally got his money, a college degree and is still alive today as Kenneth Howe. He lives in Florida.

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