Review of Blaine Harden, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot (Viking, 2015), 290 pages
The cover of Blaine Harden’s new book both literally and symbolically reproduces the map of the divided Korean peninsula.
The top half is dominated by the face of Kim Il Sung against a dark background. The Yalu River runs across the North Korean leader’s cheekbone, and other North Korean cities can be discerned in the darkness. A red line, the DMZ, bisects the cover, and the map. The bottom half of the book jacket is dominated by a picture of a North Korean fighter pilot, No Kum Sok, who flew his MiG jet fighter in 1953 to South Korea in a bid to defect. The South Korean city of Taejon is visible near his right ear. In contrast to the North Korean leader, the defector’s face is set against a much lighter backdrop that resembles the sky just after dawn.
It has been commonplace to represent the Korean peninsula this way ever since the night-time map of the two Koreas – a thousand points of lights in the south and a sea of blackness in the north – became an Internet meme. The depiction carries with it moral overtones as well. Few, after all, would chastise South Korea for wasting energy and praise North Korea for its thriftiness. As in a fairytale, bright is good and dark is bad.
And just in case these visual clues are not enough, the book’s subtitle underscores the moral message: “The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom.” This dual biography will describe the evil acts of a tyrant in the North and the heroic acts of a freedom-lover who escaped to the South.
It has been more than 60 years since the cessation of hostilities in the Korean War. But a cold war continues on the Korean peninsula. And the moral dichotomies that cold wars produce – the passion plays of good and evil – continue to dominate the coverage of, particularly, North Korea.
Blaine Harden is a former Washington Post reporter and author of the best-selling Escape from Camp 14, a book about another North Korean defector, one who grew up in unspeakable misery in a labor camp. Instead of writing a straightforward account of No Kum Sok, the pilot who piloted his airplane to South Korea a few months after the declaration of the armistice in 1953, Harden decided to write a parallel biography.
It was an interesting decision. Perhaps he didn’t really have enough material for a book just on No Kum Sok. Perhaps his publisher convinced him that parallel biographies – The Madman and the Professor or Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives – do well in the marketplace.
More likely, Harden wanted to set up an explicit narrative and moral contrast between these two North Koreans, one who deprived his country of freedom and the other who risked his life for freedom. The parallel nature of the book offers the advantage of providing, through the life of Kim Il Sung, the necessary political and historical context for understanding the challenges and dilemmas that No Kum Sok faced as a young man in a newly created country.
But there are disadvantages to such a construct as well. Do we really need another biography of Kim Il Sung, and an abbreviated one at that? Harden doesn’t provide much that is new about the North Korean leader, though his sifting through the archives provides a bit more detail about Kim’s efforts to convince Stalin of the necessity of an all-out attack on South Korea in 1950. At the same time, the black-and-white double portrait requires Harden to describe the North Korean leader in the most unfavorable terms possible – incompetent, ruthless, duplicitous. Given the personality cult that Kim helped to create, Harden no doubt felt the need to provide an anti-hagiography.
It’s not that Harden exaggerates. Kim Il Sung was all of these things. His prosecution of the Korean War was truly inept, his elimination of his rivals indeed murderous, the construction of the penal camp system monstrous. But Kim also managed to rebuild North Korea after the destruction of the war, and it wasn’t simply the economic assistance of the fraternal Communist countries that was responsible for North Korea’s success in those first post-war decades. And for all his ruthlessness, Kim had a degree of charisma lacking in his son, and apparently grandson too. The man was a tyrant, and it would certainly be valuable for North Koreans to learn this part of the story. But outside North Korea, it’s a well-worn tale.
What makes the book valuable is the description of No Kum Sok’s early years in North Korea, particularly his army service in the Korean War. No was lucky to become an elite airman and receive training from Soviet aces. He was also extraordinarily lucky not to die during the war, as so many of his colleagues did because they were so outmatched by American flyers. No survived out of mixture of luck and determination not to engage the enemy. From early on, he wanted to leave North Korea and end up in America. To conceal his true desires, he pretended to be an ultra-fanatical Communist, and he seemed to have fooled everyone.
But here’s where the account becomes interesting. In his single-minded devotion to defection, No was willing to make virtually any sacrifice, and not only on his own part. He knew that, because of his defection, his best friend in the air force would probably be executed (and he was). So, too, would his uncle and his family come under suspicion and likely face punishment. No had to make a terrible moral choice.
Later, he would deny that he escaped to freedom because of the reward — $100,000 – that the U.S. government offered to anyone from the North who delivered a MiG. To make the sacrifices No made for money would be to tarnish irreparably his daring escape. We’ll have to take No’s word for it. On the essential issues – his motivation for defection, his ideological charade, his failure to shoot down any American planes – Harden relies on only one source.
Once in America, No became Kenneth Roh, married a South Korean woman, and raised three children. He avoided Koreans, Korean Americans, and Korean culture. His children grew up without learning any Korean. The family didn’t even eat Korean food. This too was part of the enormous sacrifice he made to leave the country of his birth and reinvent himself overseas. Freedom, in other words, came with a price – for No/Roh, his friends, his family. But to preserve his dichotomy between tyranny and freedom, between Korea light and dark, Harden doesn’t dwell much on Kenneth Roh’s sacrifices.
In the epilogue, we learn that Kenneth Roh’s younger son, Edmund, killed himself and his wife four months after their wedding. The murder-suicide took place on the exact anniversary of the day that his father defected to South Korea 55 years before. Kenneth Roh is inclined to believe that the timing was a coincidence. But perhaps his past had come back one last time to haunt him. Rather than a tale of tragedy in the North and triumph in the South, Harden’s book carries a more complicated story buried in there about the terrible sacrifices that the division of the Korean peninsula has inflicted on everyone in the divided country.
Korean Quarterly, Summer 2015