The former No Kum-sokKenneth Rowe

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Born No Kum-sok in Korea to a baseball-playing father and a Roman Catholic mother, No not surprisingly developed an anti-communist attitude. He had to hide those feelings: he lived in northern Korea, which was dominated by Kim Il Sung, who established the country of North Korea and installed himself as its president. Still, knowing North Korea followed a Songun (military first) policy, No joined the military, wanting to fly. His history professor helped him pass the pilot selection test, and he was sent to Manchuria for training. No figured the Korean War would be over by the time he finished training, but no such luck: he flew more than 100 combat missions, and promoted to Senior Lieutenant. Still, he never took any opportunity to shoot down enemy planes, and his plane was never hit by enemy fire. “A very lucky thing,” he said years later. At the time, “I was thinking about escaping to the U.S. some day, now I’m fighting against them.” In July 1953, Kim Il Sung signed an armistice with the United Nations; he had failed in uniting Korea under his own rule, but he now had a firm grip over those in the north, and No was stuck.

During the war, Kim Il Sung had visited the air base where No was stationed. It occurred to No that he could just take out his service pistol and kill the dictator, but he hesitated because he wanted a chance to live in freedom — he wanted to defect. Two months after the armistice, on September 21, 1953, he saw his opportunity. “My chances of success were 20 percent,” he said later — “80 percent I would be killed.” Still, realizing he had little to lose, No hung back from a patrol group, and then veered off in his Soviet-built MiG-15 jet fighter and turned south, flying at 1,000 km/h (620 mph). By then there was no way for any of his fellow fighter pilots to catch up to him since he was only about 15 minutes from the border with South Korea.

Rowe’s MiG, parked next to a Sabre, taken without permission from a truck about 5 minutes after his landing. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

He landed at Kimpo Air Base just outside Seoul, South Korea. Being unfamiliar with the airfield he landed going the wrong way on the runway. At the same time, U.S. Air Force Capt. Dave William was landing his F-86 Sabre fighter — in the right direction — and had to veer out of the way of No’s fighter. “It’s a goddamn MiG!” William said over the radio. Not just a MiG, but a MiG-15bis, the advanced version of the -15. Another pilot who watched it all from the air said if No had come in from the correct direction, he probably would have shot the MiG down. In a stroke of luck, Kimpo’s radar had been shut down for maintenance.

Rowe in his flight suit, shortly after his defection in 1953. He was just 21 years old. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

No pulled to a stop next to a parked F-86. “I unfastened my oxygen mask and breathed free air for the first time in my life,” he said, and got out, bringing the photo of Kim Il Sung that was required to be on his instrument panel. He tore it up and threw it on the ground, and surrendered to airbase security, saying over and over the only word in English he could think of: “Motorcar. Motorcar. — hoping that someone would bring an automobile to drive me to headquarters.” Once security understood he was wishing to defect, he was asked to don his full flight suit again for photos, and was debriefed by an officer who flew in from Tokyo. That interrogator assumed No defected with his MiG due to “Operation Moolah” — the wartime offer to give any Korean pilot who defected with his MiG $100,000 and political asylum in the U.S. No had never heard of the offer, but he got the money anyway (worth about $1.1 million today). But first, he helped the U.S. military put his MiG to the test in Okinawa, Japan, by some of the most capable test pilots in the U.S. Air Force, including Maj. Chuck Yaeger.

No meeting Vice President Richard Nixon at the U.S. Capitol in 1954. (Family photo)

Once in the U.S. after six months of interrogation, No changed his name to Kenneth Rowe, and — after sightseeing and meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon — went to the University of Delaware, and got a job as an aeronautical engineer. What he didn’t get was permanent residency, and his CIA handler refused to help. By then, Rowe had learned English, and something about politics: “I asked a U.S. Senator from the state of Delaware. I asked him to introduce a bill through the U.S. Senate” to declare Rowe a permanent resident. The senator did, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it. “I thought maybe the CIA might be mad at me,” Rowe said — “I went behind their back. But they congratulated me!” He became an American citizen in 1962.

In 1970, Rowe learned that his best friend in the military, pilot Kun Soo Sung, was one of five in his chain of command who were executed by firing squad for No’s defection. Rowe’s mother survived retribution for his defection because she had escaped to South Korea two years earlier; his father had died in the war. Rowe used some of his invested reward to bring his mother to the U.S., in 1957. She helped him find a wife, and the couple had a son and a daughter. They settled in Florida, where Rowe became a professor of aeronautical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Ken Rowe speaking next to the plane he flew to freedom at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, January 2018 (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Rowe retired from Embry-Riddle in 2000 after 17 years. In 2012, Rowe read Escape from Camp 14 *, a best selling book by former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden about Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean who was born in a political prison camp but was able to escape and make his way to the U.S. Rowe called Harden and asked if he knew who he was. Harden had no idea, so Rowe suggested he read up on this story and gave him his phone number. “I read some stuff over a few days and called him back,” Harden said, “and asked him if he would participate in a book about his escape and about the rise of the man who invented North Korea.” The result: The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, subtitled The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, published in 2015. (Rowe had previously worked with another author on A MiG-15 to Freedom, published in 2007.) His MiG-15 ended up in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio — parked next to a  F-86 Sabre. He went there in 2018 to visit his old plane and give a talk. Rowe said he never second-guessed his decision to defect and live in the United States. He died at his home in Daytona Beach on December 26, at 90.

From This is True for 1 January 2023