Blaine Harden on understanding North Korea

Q&A | Well-known biographer talks about his latest retelling of a defector’s story
by Sophia Lee
Posted 6/23/15, 09:03 am

Former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden has a gift for making complicated history and dense research not just accessible but thrilling to the general reader. That’s one reason his latest book, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, is a runner-up for WORLD’s Book of the Year in the History/Biography category. Soon after the book’s release, I sat down with Harden to talk about the North Korean regime, its notorious founder, and his previous best-seller, Escape From Camp 14.

How did you find No Kum Sok, the titular “fighter pilot” who defected North Korea in a MiG-15? He found me. He telephoned me in 2012 after Escape From Camp 14 was published, and asked me if I knew who he was and what he’d done, and I didn’t. He suggested that I find out, so I looked him up and read his autobiography. Then I called him back and suggested we do a book about his escape and the rise of Kim Il Sung, and also about the American bombing of North Korea during the Korean war. He agreed.

You know, he was very famous in the 1950s. He didn’t look for fame, it just sort of fell upon him. Then the Korean War became forgotten because of the Vietnam War, and so was he. His autobiography was closely followed by aviation buffs, but not so much by the general public. I think he felt that his story should be known.

What was your purpose in writing this book? Escape from Camp 14 helped get the international public to talk more about the human rights issue in North Korea. What kind of conversation are you hoping to stir this time? I think the larger thing I wanted to do with this book is try to explain why North Korea behaves the way it does now. Kim Jong Un a couple years ago made these awful threats to nuke Southern California and Austin and D.C. The public was alarmed by the threats, but they also thought, “This guy is nutty!” But if you understand the history of the Korean War and who Kim Il Sung was and the type of state he created, those threats don’t sound as crazy.

I also wanted to expose the dramatic nature of the American bombing of North Korea. America has engaged in a long series of wars since WWII. And very often, the consequences of those wars are not well-understood. The Korean War was a big war—36,000 American troops were killed over three years. But the focus of the carnage was on North Korean aggression and the Red Threat, and then the ground-fighting with China. The focus on the bombing of civilian targets just wasn’t there; the press didn’t cover it very much, and historians have not written a lot about it. The U.S. bombing of North Korea was very systematic with no opposition. It was “long and leisurely”— that was how it was described in the U.S. Air Force’s own history. It went from city to city to city, and killed many, many civilians. If any country is bombed like that, the Americans should be aware of it. It’s part of our responsibility and democracy to know what’s being done in our name and to remember it. It also helps us understand why North Korea seems so angry.

Why is understanding the history of the Korean War so significant? It’s a good war to understand one of the most conspicuous threats to American interests from the Far East, which is North Korea. North Korea is currently building a nuclear arsenal—a large and expanding arsenal of middle- to long-range missiles—and they’re telling their people that America is their biggest threat. And the reason they can do that, the reason the North Korean people give their government some legitimacy, is because they’re constantly reminded of what happened in the Korean War. Yet Americans are to a larger extent ignorant of what happened to North Korean civilians during the war. If they understood it, they might get their mind around understanding North Korea better. I’m not sure that understanding North Korea will change its behavior— in fact, I’m sure it won’t, but knowing is better than not knowing.

So let’s talk about North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. In writing this book, what about him surprised you the most? Well, Kim Il Sung had an interesting combination of gifts. He was a great demagogue—he could understand and feel the fears and passion of his people and put it into words that made them love him. At the same time, he took their fears and turned them into power for himself. That was another one of his gifts. He just thought the world of himself. He was very much a student of Stalin, and he realized that by creating this cult of personality around himself, he could justify the kind of repression that would help him vanquish his enemies. And it was by no means a given that he was going to win complete control over North Korea; there were a lot of factions he had to overcome: the Soviets, the Chinese, the Americans, and domestic opposition. But in the end, he used Stalinist tools—control of information, repression, and denunciations—to eliminate and kill his rivals for power.

History has so many dictators. Even today, we have various existing totalitarian regimes. So what’s unique about Kim Il Sung and North Korea? I think it’s the longevity of the North Korean regime. Kim Il Sung died in 1984, but in a sense, he hasn’t died. His son and grandson run the place exactly as he ran it by using the tools of Stalinism. Today his grandson (Kim Jong Un) attempts to look like him: same hair cut, same clothes, same manner of meeting people. He’s a kind of reincarnation of his grandfather, and he does it because the legend of his grandfather persists, reinforced by propaganda and isolation. By that measure, Kim Il Sung may be the greatest leader of the 21st century if you measure “greatness” by the long-term impact on your country. That’s why he’s really interesting. If you understand him, then you understand contemporary North Korea.

The last North Korean defector you interviewed and wrote about, Shin Dong Hyuk, was a difficult, highly traumatized interviewee (Shin later admitted to falsifying some key details in his story). What were some major differences between interviewing No and interviewing Shin? Interviewing No was just easier, I mean it was just flat-out easier. He’s a well-educated, well-balanced, emotionally healthy person. Shin on the other hand, is in his own words “an animal learning to be a human being.” People who have been traumatized as he has been, they really struggle to tell a straight linear story. I interviewed Shin for years! And still did not get the whole truth. I mean, I understood that he was telling lies, which I mentioned in the book, but the degree to which he was telling lies about some things, I didn’t know and couldn’t know. And that’s just the business of interviewing defectors who come from camps. It was impossible to fact-check Shin.

But No had a huge amount of documentation. When he landed his MiG in South Korea, he had his flight records with him. Then intelligence officials from every branch of the military and the CIA interrogated him five hours a day, five days a week, for seven months. Transcripts of that interrogation were locked up until it was declassified just a few months before No phoned me. He didn’t even know those documents existed, but his memory closely matched the documents, and also closely matched North Korea’s records. He was intelligent, cooperative, enthusiastic, and highly detailed in his memories.

How’s No (now Kenneth Rowe) doing these days? Ken is now 83, retired, and living in a modest house in Florida. He’s like the typical immigrant: He aspired to come to the United States, thought of it as the only place where he can realize his dreams of happiness, and once he got over the hurdle of learning English, he achieved it—at a considerable price, of course.

Ken’s not like a lot of Korean immigrants now. He came to the United States when there were hardly any Koreans. He’s been here 62 years! He’s as American as he can get. He doesn’t speak Korean anymore, doesn’t eat Korean food, doesn't even speak Korean with his Korean wife. I think that’s part of how he decided to be a successful immigrant: to turn away from his past identity, sort of cold turkey. I think he sees himself today as a pilot, an educator, an engineer, and a survivor of North Korea. He’s very happy to have his story out there now.

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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