This month 63 years ago, September in 1953, an unbelievable event happened in Seoul Korea, as unbelievable as when we woke up three years earlier to learn that 95,000 North Koreans had launched a surprise attack across the 38th Parallel.
As a middle school student at the time, I heard our neighbors asking Mom if they could come in and listen to our Zenith Radio. “A North Korean pilot landed on Kimpo Air Port this morning, with Russian fighter plane,” a man’s voice said. “That’s true,” a woman said. “American pilots almost shot him, the newspaper said.”
Our large traditional Korean home with a separate guesthouse and a deep well in the backyard served as a miniature community center for our neighbors. And our Zenith Radio drew people regularly to our home as the deep well or the guest rooms often did.
Mom invited them in.
It was unbelievable news. 21 year old North Korean pilot named No Kum-sok defected that morning to the South in a Russian aircraft MiG-15. The length of time he flew from Sunan (just outside Pyongyang) to Kimpo Air Base near Seoul, crossing the 38th Parallel on the way, was only 17 minutes at the speed of 620 mph! Miraculously he was not chased by other MiGs flown by his North Korean comrades who were on a routine patrol mission with the defector himself moments earlier. Even more miraculous was that not a single American airman nor ground forces fired at him, because the US radar near Kimpo had been shut down for routine maintenance.
At Kimpo Airport, the defector landed on the runway incorrectly, according to the newsman, facing the wrong direction, almost hitting an American Sabre jet landing at the same time from the opposite direction. The American pilot on the Sabre veered out of the way to avoid the collision. The defector taxied the MiG-15 into an empty parking spot between two American Sabre jets, got out of the plane and began to tear up the picture of Kim Il-sung he had been carrying with him as a sign of a dutiful North Korean pilot.
The news shocked the whole nation, but at the Catholic church our family attended, our pastor conducted a prayer service, thanking the Almighty for an obvious miracle, in which a North Korean pilot flew over the heavily guarded 38th Parallel and landed on the American airfield on Kimpo without a scratch on him! He also said that the defector was raised in a staunch Catholic family, adding that more than two third of Catholics in Korea had lived on the northern side of the 38th Parallel at the time of Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945; and that under Kim Il-sung’s ruling since 1948, the communists destroyed most churches, Christian schools, books, anything that reminded them of the power above human power, and imprisoned countless western missionaries, whose fate was still unknown.
No Kum-sok’s defection to the South exposed some facts of the North Korea we didn’t know about–the north Koreans believed that South Koreans invaded the North, forcing the North Koreans to defend themselves, not the other way around; and that the U.S. Air Force so heavily bombed Pyongyang, destroying most of the buildings, that the number of homeless people in the north far exceeded those in the South.
No Kum-sok left for the United States early the next year for higher education at the expense of the U.S. government, and we even saw a photo of him in the newspaper, shaking hands with Richard Nixon, then the vice president of the United States. I then wondered why our own president, Syngman Rhee, didn’t invite No Kum-sok to his presidential mansion, the Blue House, and took photos with him? Wasn’t he proud of this courageous North Korean defector?
Only years later, as a U.S. citizen, I learned that South Korean military intelligence might have kept the defector away from the media spotlight for fear that one of North Korean spies might assassinate him for insulting their Great Leader by defecting to the South in a Russian MiG-15.
In South Korea at the time, we read about three kinds of people daily– non-Communists, potential Communists, and Communists spies. Parents told their children not to talk to strangers, not to trust anyone, except their family. One defector was particularly bold. Having convinced our elderly president, who seriously detested Communists, that he’d devote his entire life to root out “Communist Rats” in the South, he was promoted to the head of Korean military intelligence. He methodically arrested and tortured many people, including military officials, accusing them as communists but ended up dying at age 36 by bullets shot by his former victim.
$100,000 and Operation Moolah
No Kum-sok changed his name to “Kenneth Rowe” after he arrived in the U.S., probably to hide his identity as the MiG-15 thief, whose photos had been printed in the newspapers all over the world.
Months before his flight to freedom, the U.S. military had been dropping propaganda flyers known as Operation Moolah to invite MiG pilots to surrender, with $100,000 reward. The flyers read:
“To all Brave pilots who wish to free themselves from the communists yoke and start a new, better life with proper honor…you’re guaranteed safe refuge, protection, human care …and your name will be kept secret forever.”
Written in Russian, Chinese, and Korean, nearly two million flyers were dropped by B-29 Superfortress on three occasions: on the night of April 26, 1953, in the Yalu River area; two weeks later, on the night of May 10th, over North Korea–Sinuiju and Uiju airfields; and again eight days later, on May 18th.
Defector No claimed that he didn’t see such a flyer, and that he had decided to defect to the South even before the war, the reason he volunteered to be trained as a MiG pilot.
In the book The Great Leader and the fighter pilot: A True Story about the Birth of tyranny in North Korea, author Blaine Harden wrote, “He knew nothing of the much publicized reward that the U.s. military had promised to any pilot who delivered a combat-ready MiG. Nor could he have known that in Washington the new American president Dwight D. Eisenhower disapproved of paying cash to an enemy pilot. Ike viewed it as a bribe, beneath the dignity of the United States. He did not want the stolen MiG and did not want to pay taxpayer money to a Commie Turncoat.” Describing a scene in which No was interviewed in Okinawa, the author wrote: “Asked if North Korean leaders believed war would start again, No replied, ‘Yes, they do, and they’re preparing for it.’ He also said Kim Il Sung’s government continued to tell his people that the Korean War was not over ‘in order to keep them working harder’.
“What startled reporters most at the press conference…was No’s statement that he had heard nothing about Operation Moolah. While he said that he was ‘very glad’ to learn about the reward money, he found it impossible to say how he planned to use it. ‘After a pause and alternately grinning and wetting his lips… he said, ‘I don’t know,’ the New York Times reported.”
An article revealed that defector No had no idea how much $100,000 in the U.S. was equivalent to the North Korean Won or Chinese Yuan. He wished that, the article indicated, Operation Moolah would have been more effective if American military offered a good job and residence in America, instead of cash.
No’s defection left ripples of cruelty in North Korea. According to a North Korean flight instructor who defected to the South two years after No did, the air force General Wan Yong was demoted, and five of No’s comrades and commanders were executed, including his best friend, Kun Soo Sung, as punishment for not having stopped No’s plan to betray his country.
Many more North Korean defectors found their way to freedom in the South during the past seven decades, most of them walking thousands of miles through China and then southeastern countries, some never reaching their destiny. Some defectors who settled in South Korea and lived there for years complain that they were treated as second class citizens and some even wish to return to the North.
No Kum-sok (Kenneth Rowe) and his wife Clara have raised two sons and a daughter. Today, at age 84, the retired engineer, who also taught 17 years as an aeronautical engineering professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, lives happily in Daytona Beach, Florida, with his wife.
Many things have changed in the world since the Korean War.
The Berlin Wall that stood between East and West Germany crumbled down by the sledge hammers struck from both sides in 1989. The Soviet Union was dissolved two years later, in 1991, and has become 15 different free nations, and Christianity has returned to that Russia, where people freely attend worship services, including Vladimir Putin himself, though evangelizing outside of churches are prohibited. No more religious properties are confiscated. No one ridicules Christian doctrine. No school children learn atheism in schools.
What has North Korea changed during the past seven decades?