Cover image of "The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot," a book by Blaine Harden

The Korean War is little remembered in the US. After all, the hostilities ended more than sixty years ago. And the even more destructive wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have long overshadowed that so-called “police action” (in Harry Truman’s words) — despite the fact that 37,000 Americans lost their lives in the conflict.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

It seems unlikely, then, that more than a handful of us in the US are aware of what really happened. You’ll learn a lot about it in the extraordinary book by Blaine Harden, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot. Far more than his previous book about North Korean history, Escape from Camp 14, which merely confirms what we already knew (or thought we knew) about the massive and brutal human rights violations that keep the Kim regime in power, The Great Leader illuminates the origins of the country in World War II and the overarching role of the Korean War in determining what North Korea has become today.

The “Great Leader” of the title is, of course, Kim Il Sung, a client of Stalin’s Russia — he served in the Soviet army, never rising above captain — and the “Fighter Pilot” was a young man born No Kum Sok. No was, in fact, the youngest pilot in the North Korean air force when he defected in 1953 shortly after the armistice that concluded the Korean War, delivering a late-model MiG-15 jet fighter to a US airfield in South Korea. The event was headline news at the time.

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom by Blaine Harden (2015) 304 pages ★★★★★

For an American, the most revealing — and disturbing — revelation that emerges from The Great Leader is the utter savagery with which the US bombed North Korea and the critical role that massive offensive has played in shaping North Koreans’ worldview to this day. Although glossed over in the official US Air Force history, American bombers virtually achieved what later commentators wistfully referred to in the context of the Vietnam War: “bombing the country back into the Stone Age.”

Despite the intensive assaults on Hanoi, Haiphong, and vital North Vietnamese military targets, the death and destruction wreaked by the US in North Vietnam nearly two decades later apparently didn’t come close to the utter devastation suffered by North Korea. Bombing, chiefly by vintage World War II B-29 bombers, reduced the North Korean population by somewhere between fourteen and twenty percent (as many as 1.9 million people), according to different estimates. As Harden reports, “A Soviet postwar study of American bomb damage in the North found that 85 percent of all structures in the country were destroyed. The air force ran out of targets to blow up and burn.”

The Great Leader was a cowardly and manipulative man

Harden paints a detailed portrait of Kim Il Sung as a a cowardly and manipulative man who cleverly maneuvered Josef Stalin into supporting the ill-conceived invasion of South Korea that kicked off the war in 1950. Within a year, the North Korean army was in tatters, with “UN” forces (chiefly American) occupying most of the peninsula. Only the intervention of Mao Tse-Dung’s Chinese army — and, later, the delivery of thousands of Soviet MiG-15 fighters and pilots to neutralize the US Air Force — allowed North Korea to reclaim territory above the 38th Parallel. Thus, the war ended with the border precisely where it had been when the US and the USSR created North and South Korea in 1945.

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot joins a bookcase-full of books in English about North Korea — a total of 771 listed on Amazon (although many are novels or other works of questionable merit). In recent years, I’ve read what I believe to be some of the most revealing of these books: Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, Paul Fischer’s A Kim Jong-Il Production, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, and an extraordinary, Pulitzer-winning novel by Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son. Together, these remarkable books offer an in-depth introduction to the history of North Korea.

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