Book review: The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot - flight to freedom

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:54pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:54pm

North Korea continues to spellbind and dumbfound. Kim Jong-un, a pudgy clone of his grandfather who founded the hereditary Stalinist state, recently executed his defence minister using a unique firing squad: a battery of anti-aircraft guns.

Obliteration is the name of the game, whether it's feeding your uncle to dogs or wiping out all the relatives and friends of potential rivals. With every ghoulish twist and turn of the Kim family saga, we wonder what enables these monsters to hang on to power. Why don't the people or some faction rise up and overthrow the regime? Leaders require some degree of legitimacy at some level to cling to power. Fear alone is never enough.

In his latest look at the Hermit Kingdom, Blaine Harden (author of the 2012 book Escape From Camp 14) offers some new and important insights seen through the eyes of one young man determined to defect to America, and who did so in the most spectacular fashion - and with immense cost. No Kum-sok became the youngest pilot in the North Korean air force before he flew off in a Soviet MiG to an American base in South Korea, even though he knew his best friend faced execution as a result.

No was the son of a factory manager who worked for, and admired, the Japanese imperial occupiers. The family were Christians. They ate imported soy sauce. His mother wore a fancy fur coat. In short, they ticked every bad box they could tick at the time Soviet soldiers drove the Japanese out, Mao Zedong was about to force the Nationalists into their Taiwan redoubt and Kim Il-sung was tightening his grip on power in North Korea.

No says he saw Kim in 1948 at one of the factory visits that were raised to the level of art form by his son, Kim Jong-il (if you have never seen it, search "Kimjongillookingatthings" online). No was 16 years old. It was shortly after hearing Kim's speech that No entered the psychological torment that living under totalitarian rule must present: to protect himself, he began to behave as a "No1 communist". For the rest of his time in North Korea he played the part, including informing on others and denying his family.

He was aided in this subterfuge by the outbreak of the Korean war, which threw the country into chaos, destroyed any effective bureaucracy and obliterated inconvenient pasts - including that of Kim himself. How much easier to create an entire history from myths and lies to support the new leadership?

It is here that Harden's book is at its strongest. The author makes excellent use of recently declassified material to tie the cold war strands together in a compelling tale - and to corroborate much of No's story. After Kim's initial offensive came to a halt because of his incompetence as a military strategist, the American-led and -dominated United Nations forces quickly turned the tide. Within a few weeks, their overwhelming air superiority led to the wholesale destruction of North Korea's air capabilities. The Americans settled into what they described as a "leisurely" bombing campaign that laid waste to almost every civilian structure. Cities, dams, railways and roads were destroyed. And when they'd flattened the concrete, they turned to napalm, dropping twice as much on North Korea as they had on Japan in the second world war.

The brutality and wantonness of the destruction fuels the Kim clan's central claim to legitimacy to this day. The air superiority also forced Josef Stalin to commit Soviet pilots to help stop America from building a bridgehead in the east. With Russian MiGs, Mao's ground troops helped fight the UN forces to a standstill.

Harden's accounts of the horse trading over the battered and beaten corpse of North Korea should make the blood of even hardened cynics boil. For seasoned or obsessive North Korea watchers, a lot of what Harden writes will not be new. But by tying together the geopolitical manoeuvring by the US, China and Soviet Union at the top, with the grotesque puppet of Kim Il-sung playing the middle, and showing how this played out for ordinary people at the bottom of the heap, he reminds us of the appalling tragedy that befell North Korea.

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