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Kenneth Rowe, North Korean pilot who flew to freedom in 1953, dies at 90


On a clear morning in late September 1953, seven weeks after the Korean War armistice, crews at the US Kimpo Air Base near Seoul were astonished to see an unannounced warplane roar from the north .

The jet was arriving the wrong way on the take-off patterns. Its wings swayed and its lights flashed. The North Korean pilot in command, Lieutenant No Kum-Sok, was trying to signal that he was not attacking. He was defecting.

About 15 minutes earlier, the 21-year-old airman had drifted away from a North Korean patrol. The demilitarized zone, separating the Korean peninsula, loomed on the horizon. He pushed his Soviet-made MiG-15 to its limits, soaring 23,000 feet above the DMZ’s no-man’s land, then hurtling into South Korea at over 600 mph. Luckily, the American radar system was down for maintenance.

When he landed at Kimpo, his snub-nosed MiG nearly collided with an F-86 Saber that had just landed at the other end of the runway.

Thus began his new life in the whirlwind of Cold War politics and propaganda. His aircraft was a major military coup, handing over to the Americans the first undamaged model of the later MiG-15bis which was a major opponent of the F-86s during the Korean War of 1950-1953.

The pilot then moved to the United States – with the media on hand for front-page coverage of his arrival – changed his name to Kenneth Hill Rowe and caused ripples in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration over the opportunity to pay a $100,000 bounty promised to any defector who comes across a MiG. He finally received it after the president relented.

Mr Rowe, who died on December 26 aged 90 at his home in Daytona Beach, Florida, said he was unaware of the award money at the time. He only sought to breathe “open air for the first time in my life”, Mr. Rowe recounted in a memoir, “A MiG-15 to Freedom” (1996), written with J. Roger Osterholm.

For the Pentagon, its MiG was an invaluable prize. It was not the first defection aboard a Soviet-made warplane to South Korea. In 1950, a North Korean pilot flew an Ilyushin Il-10 propeller south. But the MiG-15bis, with its swept-back wing design, was far more advanced.

Warplanes, based in Chinese Manchuria near the North Korean border, had changed air warfare in Korea. The MiG-15s outclassed some American warplanes, including the F-84 Thunderjets. Allied forces, fighting under UN auspices, halted daylight bombing.

The F-86 fared better against MiGs in aerial duels, according to military historians. But the North Koreans and their Chinese allies still had the advantage of being closer in the main battle spaces known as “MiG Alley”.

The Air Force put the newly acquired MiG-15 through a series of rigorous test flights to assess its capabilities. Among the pilots used was Major Chuck Yeager, who was the first aviator to break the sound barrier in 1947 and later pushed jets to the edge of the atmosphere in tests that laid the foundation for future space missions . (Mr. Rowe’s MiG is now in the collection of the National Museum of the US Air Force in Ohio.)

After Mr Rowe landed on September 21, 1953, he tore up a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. For years, Mr Rowe had pretended to be ultra-loyal to the regime as he rose through the military ranks, racking up dozens of combat flights. He was still waiting for his chance to take a break.

“All hell broke loose around the airbase,” Mr Rowe said in the memoir. The only English word he could find was “motorcar”, hoping someone would drive him to see a commander.

No one on the base (now the site of Gimpo International Airport) could speak Korean or Japanese, which Mr Rowe was well aware of having been raised in Japanese-occupied Korea. Eventually, Mr. Rowe found himself in the office of an intelligence specialist, Air Force Maj. Donald. Nichols, who spoke passable Korean, based on the events depicted in Blaine Harden’s 2015 book ‘The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot’ about Kim’s rise and Mr. Rowe’s escape .

Mr Rowe first tasted Coca-Cola, which he loved, and American military food, which he found disgusting. Air Force photographers had him pose for propaganda-style images: some with him wearing his helmet and leather flight jacket.

Nichols’ 55-page report on Mr Rowe’s interrogation describes him as a rich source of information on North Korean, Chinese and Soviet operations. “He was able to recall the air units, strength, structure and number of aircraft assigned to the respective units,” the report said, according to Harden’s book.

Yet interrogators seemed unconvinced Mr Rowe was unaware of the $100,000 (almost $1 million in today’s economy) inducement to defect with a MiG as part of the a program called “Operation Moolah”. In the final months of the war, leaflets were dropped across North Korea with the offer.

Question: “Didn’t you read the flyers we put out about the award?”

Mr. Rowe’s response: “No, I have never seen them.

It took years for the money to come out. Eisenhower thought it was improper to reward defectors so generously and feared it would disrupt the fragile peace on the Korean peninsula. His advisers and senior military brass persuaded him that going back on the offer would be a misstep in Cold War ideological struggles between East and West.

Mr. Rowe was transferred to Okinawa at the end of 1953, where he was put on the payroll at $300 a month. He splurged on Japanese food, a West German-made Contax camera, and American-style clothing.

When he arrived in San Francisco on May 4, 1954 – in front of a group of reporters and a news crew – he wowed the crowd with his improving English and all-American attire.

“Looks like a College American Joe in sportswear and a porkpie hat,” according to an Associated Press article.

Lasting occupation, then Kim’s regime

No Kum-Sok was born on January 10, 1932 in Sinheung, Korea, then under Japanese occupation. His family had a relatively comfortable life thanks to his father, who worked in a Japanese company. His mother raised Mr Rowe as a Christian.

He kept his faith and family ties to a Japanese employer secret after Kim’s Soviet-backed regime took control after World War II. He said his mother also instilled in him a passion for Western freedoms, especially idolizing the United States.

Mr Rowe long plotted his escape even as he presented himself to his peers as a fanatic of Kim’s rule. He first became a naval cadet, eventually seeking to flee to a foreign port. He later transferred to the Air Force and trained with Soviet pilots in Manchuria before receiving his wings at age 19.

For years after arriving in the United States, Mr Rowe wore dark glasses and felt constantly on guard, fearing agents from North Korea or Russia were seeking revenge. “I guess the damage is done,” he said in 1962 shortly after becoming an American citizen. His mother, who joined a refugee camp in South Korea, arrived in the United States in 1957. Mr Rowe adopted a puppy, which he named Mig.

He graduated in 1958 from the University of Delaware with a degree in mechanical engineering and later worked for defense and aerospace companies. He then taught engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Mr Rowe’s death was announced in a family statement published in the Daytona Beach News-Journal. He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Clara Rowe; a daughter and a son; and a grandson.

At a 2010 memorial for Korean War veterans in Vero Beach, Florida, a few who served declined to attend due to Mr Rowe’s attendance. Despite his risky defection, they objected to sharing the event with a former enemy.

Mr. Rowe took it in stride. “I was a veteran on the wrong side,” he said.

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