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From the New York Times bestselling author of Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden tells the riveting story of Kim Il Sung's rise to power, and the brave North Korean fighter pilot who escaped the prison state and delivered the first MiG-15 into American hands In The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, New York Times bestselling author Blaine Harden tells the riveting story o From the New York Times bestselling author of Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden tells the riveting story of Kim Il Sung's rise to power, and the brave North Korean fighter pilot who escaped the prison state and delivered the first MiG-15 into American hands In The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, New York Times bestselling author Blaine Harden tells the riveting story of how Kim Il Sung grabbed power and plunged his country into war against the United States while the youngest fighter pilot in his air force was playing a high-risk game of deception—and escape. As Kim ascended from Soviet puppet to godlike ruler, No Kum Sok noisily pretended to love his Great Leader. That is, until he swiped a Soviet MiG-15 and delivered it to the Americans, not knowing they were offering a $100,000 bounty for the warplane (the equivalent of nearly one million dollars today). The theft—just weeks after the Korean War ended in July 1953—electrified the world and incited Kim’s bloody vengeance. During the Korean War the United States brutally carpet bombed the North, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and giving the Kim dynasty, as Harden reveals, the fact-based narrative it would use to this day to sell paranoia and hatred of Americans. Drawing on documents from Chinese and Russian archives about the role of Mao and Stalin in Kim’s shadowy rise, as well as from never-before-released U.S. intelligence and interrogation files, Harden gives us a heart-pounding escape adventure and an entirely new way to understand the world’s longest-lasting totalitarian state.


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From the New York Times bestselling author of Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden tells the riveting story of Kim Il Sung's rise to power, and the brave North Korean fighter pilot who escaped the prison state and delivered the first MiG-15 into American hands In The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, New York Times bestselling author Blaine Harden tells the riveting story o From the New York Times bestselling author of Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden tells the riveting story of Kim Il Sung's rise to power, and the brave North Korean fighter pilot who escaped the prison state and delivered the first MiG-15 into American hands In The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, New York Times bestselling author Blaine Harden tells the riveting story of how Kim Il Sung grabbed power and plunged his country into war against the United States while the youngest fighter pilot in his air force was playing a high-risk game of deception—and escape. As Kim ascended from Soviet puppet to godlike ruler, No Kum Sok noisily pretended to love his Great Leader. That is, until he swiped a Soviet MiG-15 and delivered it to the Americans, not knowing they were offering a $100,000 bounty for the warplane (the equivalent of nearly one million dollars today). The theft—just weeks after the Korean War ended in July 1953—electrified the world and incited Kim’s bloody vengeance. During the Korean War the United States brutally carpet bombed the North, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and giving the Kim dynasty, as Harden reveals, the fact-based narrative it would use to this day to sell paranoia and hatred of Americans. Drawing on documents from Chinese and Russian archives about the role of Mao and Stalin in Kim’s shadowy rise, as well as from never-before-released U.S. intelligence and interrogation files, Harden gives us a heart-pounding escape adventure and an entirely new way to understand the world’s longest-lasting totalitarian state.

30 review for 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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Grumpus

    I won this through Goodreads first-read in exchange for an honest review. North Korea has been intriguing me for about 3 years now. So much so that I've created a "north-korea" folder because I've been reading so much about it. There are some interesting reads in that folder but none in which I learned as much as I did in this book. It's sorta like The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America in that it alternates between two stories. The first is the hi I won this through Goodreads first-read in exchange for an honest review. North Korea has been intriguing me for about 3 years now. So much so that I've created a "north-korea" folder because I've been reading so much about it. There are some interesting reads in that folder but none in which I learned as much as I did in this book. It's sorta like The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America in that it alternates between two stories. The first is the history of how the North Korea we know today came into existence through the rise of Kim Il Sung. He was an incompetent fool yet amazingly was able to get everything he wanted and needed from China and the USSR. The curious turn of events make it seem it was almost his destiny to rise to power. Simultaneously, we follow the life story of No Kum Sok. No (I know its confusing reading No as a name...I struggled with it too) was a North Korean trapped in his country who longed to go to America. In order to survive, he "played the communist game", joining the air force, and biding his time until he could defect. Both stories are amazing and unbelievable and kept me thoroughly engaged. Given what's going in North Korea today, it is also a timely read.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kalyn✨

    The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot goes into great detail about Kim Il Sung's life, how he came into power, and North Korea's early history. Alongside that, we learn of No Kum-sok— now known as Kenneth H. Rowe— who risked his life to escape Kim's tyranny. This probably won't be very entertaining if you're not very interested in the Korean war, the "hermit kingdom" known as North Korea, or just dictatorships in general, but I thought it was good. Very thorough and clearly well-researched. Defin The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot goes into great detail about Kim Il Sung's life, how he came into power, and North Korea's early history. Alongside that, we learn of No Kum-sok— now known as Kenneth H. Rowe— who risked his life to escape Kim's tyranny. This probably won't be very entertaining if you're not very interested in the Korean war, the "hermit kingdom" known as North Korea, or just dictatorships in general, but I thought it was good. Very thorough and clearly well-researched. Definitely recommend to those interested in the subject! :-)

  3. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    Anybody at all interested in the Korean War should read this book! Quite an eye-opener. The author reveals the cover-ups and lies made by Americans, Koreans, the Soviets and the Chinese. This is not just a biography of Kim Il-sung and No Kum Sok! I didn't read this for the excitement of the tale, but rather for the facts. I am satisfied. I learned a lot. The presentation is clear. The language is journalistic, but occasionally employed to increase suspense. I did not enjoy the narration by Mark B Anybody at all interested in the Korean War should read this book! Quite an eye-opener. The author reveals the cover-ups and lies made by Americans, Koreans, the Soviets and the Chinese. This is not just a biography of Kim Il-sung and No Kum Sok! I didn't read this for the excitement of the tale, but rather for the facts. I am satisfied. I learned a lot. The presentation is clear. The language is journalistic, but occasionally employed to increase suspense. I did not enjoy the narration by Mark Bramhall. Too emotional. Too snide. Really, I didn't need Bramhall's help in deciding how to view the presented facts. There is even a brief epilogue that summarizes the actions of Kim Il-sung successors, first Kim Jong-il, followed by Kim Jong-un. Read the book. It is short. It is revelatory. It is not hard to understand.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Veeral

    Blaine Harden has achieved the inconceivable by writing 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. This book is a perfect blend of popular and academic history, something very rare a book can claim to be nowadays. And I am not saying this just to impress the potential readers. Having read more than a dozen books on North Korea in the past couple of years, I have found that most books were eit Blaine Harden has achieved the inconceivable by writing 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. This book is a perfect blend of popular and academic history, something very rare a book can claim to be nowadays. And I am not saying this just to impress the potential readers. Having read more than a dozen books on North Korea in the past couple of years, I have found that most books were either written to fit perfectly in the popular history niche or were bland and academic enough to be mistaken as a thesis written to defend a PhD (the kind which puts everybody in the room to sleep once the projector starts after lunch break). So how did Harden achieve the unachievable? The sheer ingenuity of the book lays in its format. It follows two people – the rise of Kim Il-Sung as the dictator of North Korea and No Kum Sok, a fighter pilot whose only desire was to defect to the west, and so in the process, the book gives us both, broader and personal view of North Korean history. Harden writes how Kim-Il-Sung came to power and how and why he created his cult-like image. Generally, you would have to trek through at least half a thousand pages of academic Atacama to understand why North Korea became how it is today and why they hate the United States of America so passionately, provided, that the book you’re reading is not US-centric, otherwise by the end you would realize that what you thought was an oasis was just a mirage. Titanic gave up and sank when Kim Il-Sung was born. Or rather, Kim Il-Sung was born on the same day (15th April, 1912) when Titanic sank in the frigid waters of the Atlantic. An average guerilla leader, Kim Il-Sung came to power because he was the only guerilla leader left standing after the Chinese purged most of the Koreans fearing that they were secretly working for the Japanese in Manchuria. Initially as a young leader, Kim Il-Sung did try to improve his country. He introduced education for farmers and also decreed that women would have the same rights as men and would receive equal compensation at work. But then came the Korean War and with it, the USSR (with China tagging along) and the USA. No Kum Sok was just a teenager when the Korean War started brewing, and so, with no desire to die young, he decided that compared to joining the army, the safest way to survive the war was to become a fighter pilot (he became the youngest fighter pilot in the Korean War on either side) and so he joined the North Korean air force. Kim Il-Sung was no military strategist, and hence he couldn't stop the Americans from landing at Inchon in South Korea which the North had won in the initial stages of the war. His inefficaciousness grated on both Stalin and Mao, and hence the seeds of gradual alienation of North Korea from rest the world were sown. The USA bombed North Korea for 3 years and killed between 1.2 million to 1.9 million civilians. They almost leveled 5 major North Korean cities. As a precursor to Vietnam, USA also dropped 32,000 tons of napalm on North Korea (In case you’re wondering, no, they didn’t use Agent Orange, but only because it was not invented yet). No wonder the North Koreans don’t like the Americans. Harden keeps alternating his point of view from Kim Il-Sung to No Kum Sok in the book all the way through. This way, he provides a vantage point to view all the calamitous events, both from a higher level of politics, and on the ground level through the eyes of a young man. As the first jet war raged on between MiGs and Sabres, No Kum Sok focused all his energy on the sole purpose of remaining alive and to defect to South Korea in his fighter jet. It would not be a spoiler to write that No Kum Sok finally escaped to South Korea in his latest MiG-15 (according to the author and contrary to official reports, the Americans didn’t realize what had happened until No landed his plane in South Korea). But it took No Kum Sok 5 years and 8 months to bring his plan of defection to fruition. To blame others for the devastation the war had wrought, Kim arranged show trials like Stalinist Russia (which the author aptly likens to a Monty Python skit), and hence consolidated his power as the supreme leader of the country. The author also describes how No Kum Sok had to struggle to become a citizen of the USA, and how even the president of the USA, Eisenhower played a part in trying to deny No Kum Sok his 1,00,000 dollars award (Operation Moolah) for bringing his MiG fighter plane to them (Though I should make it clear that No Kum Sok had definitely no idea that the Americans were offering such an award). No Kum Sok only came to know about Eisenhower’s part in trying to deny him his award when Blaine Harden told him personally while researching for this book. Blaine Harden might have written the only unbiased account of the Korean War, and North Korea in recent years. I am sure this book will satisfy readers of both popular and academic history alike. ***Disclosure: I requested and received an ARC from Netgalley from the author/publisher for an honest review.***

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    I'm going to be honest here and admit I know very little about the history of Korea and its place in the modern world. There are times I would even mix up which Korea (North or South) was the Democratic nation and which was Communist. Probably because I was doing the same thing with Vietnam. I found out about this book earlier in 2015 and discovered that the history of Kim Il-Sung's ascension story was juxtaposed against that of a North Korean Air Force pilot attempting to defect and I was sold. I'm going to be honest here and admit I know very little about the history of Korea and its place in the modern world. There are times I would even mix up which Korea (North or South) was the Democratic nation and which was Communist. Probably because I was doing the same thing with Vietnam. I found out about this book earlier in 2015 and discovered that the history of Kim Il-Sung's ascension story was juxtaposed against that of a North Korean Air Force pilot attempting to defect and I was sold. It's amazing. Very thoroughly researched and well organized story that gives you enough history of the time to know what's going on and gain context for the story but without boring you to tears. This sort of non-fiction historical story is perfect for audiobook, too. Very little use of voices in the narrative. Mark Bramhall does a great job of reading and gives it the feel of a classic news broadcast. I'm actually looking into additional audiobooks that he reads just because I liked him that much.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    His neighbors in South Daytona, Florida know him as Kenneth H. Rowe. In the early 1950’s, he was known by his fellow pilots in the North Korean air force as No Kum Sok. We know him today as the man who landed his Soviet-made MiG-15 at an American air base in South Korea, just days before the end of the Korean conflict. Five years and eight months in the planning, Lieutenant No Kum Sok made his daring seventeen- minute flight into American air space not knowing that the USA had promised to pay th His neighbors in South Daytona, Florida know him as Kenneth H. Rowe. In the early 1950’s, he was known by his fellow pilots in the North Korean air force as No Kum Sok. We know him today as the man who landed his Soviet-made MiG-15 at an American air base in South Korea, just days before the end of the Korean conflict. Five years and eight months in the planning, Lieutenant No Kum Sok made his daring seventeen- minute flight into American air space not knowing that the USA had promised to pay the equivalent of nearly 900-thousand-dollars in today’s economy to any North Korean pilot brave enough to do just that. Doctor Victor Cha of Georgetown University called author Blaine Harden’s revisit of the Korean War “the interwoven stories of Kim II Sung and MiG fighter pilot No Kum Sok.” True. There are two stories here. Two separate stories. Kim II Sung’s story and No Kum Sok’s story. Interwoven? I don’t think so. Given what Harden records here, Kim and No’s two separate stories overlap at only two points. Once when the Korean dictator stood on a mound of chemical fertilizer and gave a speech where No was in the audience. Then again years later, when No helped give Kim II Sung and his son a less than fifteen-minute tour of a MiG air base. Harden records no dialogue between Kim and No either during the fertilizer speech or the Uiju air base tour. I hardly call that an “interwoven” relationship. There are two very separate stories within these 244 pages. There’s a lot of history here about the rise and fall of Kim II Sung. There’s a lot of personal history about a North Korean MiG fighter pilot obsessed with coming to America. My question is, with all the books that have been written about North Korea’s first dictator, why do we need another one? Keep in mind that in 1996, No Kum Sok himself, with the help of J. Roger Osterholm, released his own autobiography on his historic flight under the title, “A MiG 15 to Freedom.” That said, why do we need another book that covers the exact same ground? Without Sok’s fascinating story, this is just another academic look at an egotistical, maniac guerilla fighter-turned Communist political leader. When Harden turns our attention to “the youngest pilot in the North Korean air force” this account soars. When the spotlight is on the morbidly obese Kim II Sung, boring! Note to Harden: next time, let’s keep “the true story of the tyrant who created North Korea” totally separate from the story of “the young lieutenant who stole his way to freedom.” One really has nothing to do with the other. Next time, two separate books please? One for Kim II Sung. One for No Kum Sok. Kenneth R. Rowe’s story alone would make a terrific full length feature film. A working title? How about “A MiG to Freedom?”

  7. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    Really goodreads? Really? I'm not one of the half-star complainers, but I just can't get to four on this while three is too low. All the action here is in the last third, which deals with a defection. Leading up to that are the parallel lives of Kim Il Sung and No Kum Sok during the birth of North Korea. This is interesting, but eventually drags. Could the No's defection have been told with more detail? Maybe. But information about North Korea is scant. Unearthing accurate detail about it sixty y Really goodreads? Really? I'm not one of the half-star complainers, but I just can't get to four on this while three is too low. All the action here is in the last third, which deals with a defection. Leading up to that are the parallel lives of Kim Il Sung and No Kum Sok during the birth of North Korea. This is interesting, but eventually drags. Could the No's defection have been told with more detail? Maybe. But information about North Korea is scant. Unearthing accurate detail about it sixty years ago is an impressive feat. So I understand that the sources probably shaped the balance of the story here. But it sometimes read like an author struggling to bulk out a dramatic personal story with some historical context. Nothing wrong with that. But it does slow things down a little. Also on Twitter and Tumblr

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lindsey Mooridian

    The best elucidation of the Korean War that I've come across. While the author transitions skillfully between the life of dictator Kim Il Sung and fighter pilot No Kum Sok, you get a clear, thorough perspective on an incredible story. When a book sparks an interest in war planes into a tree-hugging hippie like me, it's gotta be good.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Cody

    When North Korean fighter pilot No Kum Sok landed his MiG-15 fighter plane on South Korean soil looking to defect to the United States, little did he know just how arduous his journey for citizenship in the West would become. The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot by Blaine Harden was a rather interesting read that highlighted a lesser known story in both U.S. and North Korean history. What the book does great is illustrate a great deal of aviation/fighter pilot history with the Korean war as a When North Korean fighter pilot No Kum Sok landed his MiG-15 fighter plane on South Korean soil looking to defect to the United States, little did he know just how arduous his journey for citizenship in the West would become. The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot by Blaine Harden was a rather interesting read that highlighted a lesser known story in both U.S. and North Korean history. What the book does great is illustrate a great deal of aviation/fighter pilot history with the Korean war as a backdrop including the role of American, Russian, North Korean, and Chinese had in influencing the war, both in the skies and on the ground. The juxtaposition of stories of Kim Il Sung and No Kum Sok is a worthwhile idea considering how both experienced and help direct the events of the war. However, because of the briefness of explanations the book falls a little flat. The only connection these two have is they represented North Korea during those eventful years (and met rather briefly) which left both stories feeling rather uneven and somewhat disconnected. Otherwise this is a worthy story that brings a little known slice from the background to the forefront of the history of North Korea.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    I received this book as part of GoodReads First Reads giveaway. This book actually tells two intertwined stories. The first is how Kim Il Sung first rose to power from being a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese to being North Korea's Great Leader and Eternal President (seriously, the man's been dead 10 years and he's still the Eternal President). The second is that of No Kim-sok, a lieutenant in North Korea's air force during the Korean war who defected by stealing a fighter jet and flying to I received this book as part of GoodReads First Reads giveaway. This book actually tells two intertwined stories. The first is how Kim Il Sung first rose to power from being a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese to being North Korea's Great Leader and Eternal President (seriously, the man's been dead 10 years and he's still the Eternal President). The second is that of No Kim-sok, a lieutenant in North Korea's air force during the Korean war who defected by stealing a fighter jet and flying to South Korea. What I liked most about this book was that it told the 'other' side of the story. Usually, when I read history (and wars in particular) I get details of the American side but the other side comes off as a nebulous, malevolent monolith. In this case, it was reversed so it tells the story of how the North Koreans, Chinese and Soviets fought the war and the story of their internal politics while the American and UN forces play the part of antagonists. That's not to say that Kim Il Sung and Joe Stalin come off as good guys here. If Dante were to write his Divine Comedy today, they'd be in the running for being chewed on by Satan for all eternity but it's certainly interesting to see what was going on behind the front lines in North Korea and China. And how Kim managed to stay in power after the war despite driving North Korea in to the ground and brutally oppressing the Korean people north of the 38th parallel. But my key takeaway is the impact of the American bombing campaign over North Korea. I've listened with pride to stories that the most dangerous job in North Korea during the war was being a truck driver because the US air force controlled the skies and that the air force stopped bombing Pyongyang because they ran out of targets. I'm still proud of American prowess during the war but Blaine Harden drives home the consequences to the people of Korea. Because we flattened the country but left it in Kim's tender hands, we forced the people of North Korea to rely on Kim Il Sung and his cronies for Soviet and Chinese aid and left Kim free to sink his and his dynasty's fangs into North Korea. Considering the state of North and South Korea today, I've no doubt that the United States did the right thing, fighting for South Korea, but that America may be complicit in the current state of North Korea just sticks in my craw. Having reread the above, I realize it's mainly my reactions to the contents. So, let me say that I think this book earned it's five stars. It's written in a fast paced but still informative tone and clearly elaborates on the sequence of events leading up to, during and following the Korean War.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ireney Berezniak

    I have been just a little obsessed with North Korea for the past few years, and having read Blaine Harden's other title on a related subject, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, which I quite enjoyed, I was anticipating another quality read from his latest endeavour. I was not disappointed. The fighter pilot who is the subject of this title is No Kum Sok, who has since assumed the name of Kenneth Rowe, and has apparently enjoyed Harden's exc I have been just a little obsessed with North Korea for the past few years, and having read Blaine Harden's other title on a related subject, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, which I quite enjoyed, I was anticipating another quality read from his latest endeavour. I was not disappointed. The fighter pilot who is the subject of this title is No Kum Sok, who has since assumed the name of Kenneth Rowe, and has apparently enjoyed Harden's excellent work also, for he contacted the author directly upon reading it. Soon, the work had started to revive the forgotten story of the infamous defection of the 1950s, which provided a rich source of anti-communist propaganda for the USA in those times. What I enjoyed most about this title, I think, is the historical context that Harden outlined before and through the telling of No's story. I found it to be a succinct and insightful look into the rise of Kim Il Sung and the Korean War of 1950, particularly Kim's incompetence as a military leader, and his masterful exploitation of Stalinism that had allowed him to develop a cult of personality, which continues to pervade North Korea to this day. Pushed aside by Stalin and Mao, who assumed control of the Korean War and prolonged the ruin of the country to pursue their goals in the name of international communism, Kim Il Sung needed to find a way to survive the challenges to his leadership, having overseen a disastrous war. Ironically, Stalin, who marginalized Kim from the outset, provided the model that the struggling North Korean leader relied upon even after this model has been ostracized and quickly abandoned by the communist world shortly after Stalin's death. I recommend that anyone interested in the history of the conflict on the Korean peninsula consider this title before delving into something more involved, like The Korean War: A History or North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings, for instance.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    I absolutely fell in love with Mr. Harden's novel, Escape From Camp 14. It was a riveting read. I could not stop reading the book. So you could say I was excited and intrigued to read Mr. Harden's next novel. Why this book was not a one seat read like the prior novel, it was still a very great read. I like reading military books. Yet it seems that most of my reading is during the WWII time period. I am not that familiar with the Korean War. So this book was a good eye opener to this particular w I absolutely fell in love with Mr. Harden's novel, Escape From Camp 14. It was a riveting read. I could not stop reading the book. So you could say I was excited and intrigued to read Mr. Harden's next novel. Why this book was not a one seat read like the prior novel, it was still a very great read. I like reading military books. Yet it seems that most of my reading is during the WWII time period. I am not that familiar with the Korean War. So this book was a good eye opener to this particular war. As a Korean myself, I am so glad that I was born in South Korea and not North Korea. If I had been born in North Korea I now that I may not ever be here today. It is scary as I was reading this book just how under the radar Kim passed. Due to his young age. Even Stalin thought he was the puppet master. He was wrong. Kim was a ruthless leader, who only cared about himself. No was a courageous man. I can not imagine the extreme pressure he went through living under Kim's rule while trying to find a better life outside of North Korea. What I like the most about Mr. Harden's writing is that he gives you all of the facts and holds nothing back. So you get a history lesson with some very intriguing people that have a story to tell.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Randal White

    I really, really enjoyed Mr. Harden's earlier work, Escape From Camp 14. Therefore, I was looking forward to reading this, his next effort. I'm happy to report that he didn't disappoint! Fascinating book. Had a hard time putting it down. Makes you wonder, how in the world can the world stand by and let these madmen rule the poor North Korean people? Way to go, Mr. Harden, job extremely well done!

  14. 5 out of 5

    NonFiction 24/7

    Great book about part of history that really doesn't get taught.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Thank you to Goodreads for the ACR copy of this book. In exchange, I offer my unbiased review: Like the purported satellite image of North Korea at night – much about that country is shrouded in dark and mystery. The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot by Blaine Harden (author of Escape from Camp 14) does a great job of shedding light on his subject. The book is full of factual information but it is told in a manner that makes it compelling and completely readable rather than dry. The reader is in Thank you to Goodreads for the ACR copy of this book. In exchange, I offer my unbiased review: Like the purported satellite image of North Korea at night – much about that country is shrouded in dark and mystery. The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot by Blaine Harden (author of Escape from Camp 14) does a great job of shedding light on his subject. The book is full of factual information but it is told in a manner that makes it compelling and completely readable rather than dry. The reader is introduced to Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader” as we follow his path from ragtag and ineffectual guerilla fighter through to the present day dynastic dictatorship he founded. Juxtaposed to Kim Il Sung is the story of No Kum Sok who suffers through his country’s war and social upheaval, all the while harboring the dream of fleeing to freedom in America. Both men, hide behind the propaganda they create in order to stay alive. Kim – that he is a powerful and intelligent “father” to his people, fighting and winning the war against the US which is bent on the annihilation of the paradise that is North Korea. No – that he is a fervent and loyal communist and enthusiastic supporter of the cruel and paranoid, poverty-stricken and despotic cult of personality crafted by Kim. A charade he maintains until the moment he takes off in his MiG fighter and defects with it to the South. The look into these two lives makes for interesting and enjoyable reading and goes very far in explaining how and why North Korea is the way it is. Even today, while much more powerful communist governments have reformed, the totalitarian regime of North Korea is still strangled and in total thrall to this family who, through terror, manipulation and luck have maintained their iron grip. The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot does a great job at giving us insight into this shadowy nation that continues to have a disproportionate effect on geopolitical stability. Thank you to the author and publisher for the copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    I WON THIS BOOK AS PART OF A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY. That being said, my review will be absolutely honest. *This review may contain VERY minor spoilers* I've long been fascinated by North Korea and have read a great deal about the world's most closed and xenophobic nation; however, I was not as familiar with the personal history of Kim Il sung, especially his actions during the Korean War. The study of the building of his cult of personality as well as his complete incompetence when it came to waging I WON THIS BOOK AS PART OF A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY. That being said, my review will be absolutely honest. *This review may contain VERY minor spoilers* I've long been fascinated by North Korea and have read a great deal about the world's most closed and xenophobic nation; however, I was not as familiar with the personal history of Kim Il sung, especially his actions during the Korean War. The study of the building of his cult of personality as well as his complete incompetence when it came to waging war provides an interesting contrast of a man who was political brilliant, yet militarily a dunce. Of particular interest is the amount of information given in the book from the perspective of the Soviet Union and China before and during the Korean War and their continual frustrations with their young, impulsive ally and his small nation. The book also deals with a young fighter pilot who grew up in a pre-Kim Korea and who--while Kim rose to power--was never indoctrinated into the Communist way of thinking. This pilot wisely play-acted the part of a true believer all while plotting how he would someday escape the country and make his way to America. The story of his life, his trials as a MIG pilot in an ill-prepared air force and his eventual escape provide a human look at the war in the air. No country gets a free pass here: the underhanded chess game being played by the Soviets and the Chinese, the savagery of Kim's policies and the relentless bombing by Americans across the country of North Korea fully demonstrate the brutal and senseless nature of the conflict. The book is a fairly quick read and doesn't drag. I found it to be an utterly fascinating read and would recommend it to anyone with interest in the Korean war or North Korean 20th century history. Update: I live near the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, and--during a visit--I was able to get a picture of No's MIG.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Danapuzio

    I received this book as a First Reads giveaway. I've always been fascinated by North Korea but before reading this I knew next to nothing about how Kim Il Sung came to power. I previously read and very much enjoyed the author's other book on North Korea, Escape From Camp 14, so I had high expectations. This book had a very interesting premise - weaving the story of Kim Il Sung's rise to power with that of a young man who joins North Korea's fledgling armed forces, trains to become a skilled fight I received this book as a First Reads giveaway. I've always been fascinated by North Korea but before reading this I knew next to nothing about how Kim Il Sung came to power. I previously read and very much enjoyed the author's other book on North Korea, Escape From Camp 14, so I had high expectations. This book had a very interesting premise - weaving the story of Kim Il Sung's rise to power with that of a young man who joins North Korea's fledgling armed forces, trains to become a skilled fighter pilot, and eventually betrays his Great Leader by defecting with his much-coveted MiG-15. I appreciated this story's duality - the brutal and cunning tyrant who demands his country worship him as a god, and the middle-class teenager whose very life is subject to the whims of his country's wholly incompetent leadership. Like anyone, I love an underdog story, and this didn't disappoint. While I loved the story, I found the writing left something to be desired. The first few chapters seemed very choppy and disorganized. Even once I got into the story, it seemed that important details were missing and I was constantly asking questions about information that I felt was vital to the story. Likewise, the author pretty much entirely omitted Kim Jong Il's place in the country's history and skipped right to Kim Jong Un's current reign. I realize that a thorough account of North Korea's formation and its history since the Korean War would be outside the scope of this book; with that in mind, the book does do a good job of concisely recounting this rather fascinating series of events. The fact that the author chose to weave in the story of one North Korean citizen's triumph over tyranny was a brilliant choice and turned a story of oppression into one of inspiration.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Steven

    I came close to not checking this out from my public library. I was concerned that it would be too steeped in military historical details and jargon which I wouldn't understand. Glad I changed my mind. It's a very human story told quite well and set well in its historical context. The author bounces back and forth between telling a somewhat simplified version of Kim Il Sung's rise to power in North Korea and the very personalized account of No Kum Sok, a hastily trained fighter pilot who gathered I came close to not checking this out from my public library. I was concerned that it would be too steeped in military historical details and jargon which I wouldn't understand. Glad I changed my mind. It's a very human story told quite well and set well in its historical context. The author bounces back and forth between telling a somewhat simplified version of Kim Il Sung's rise to power in North Korea and the very personalized account of No Kum Sok, a hastily trained fighter pilot who gathered the courage to fly a Soviet-built MiG jet out of North Korea shortly after the armistice. It's a harrowing story, pieced together with interviews with No and recently unclassified documents from the Korean War era. No's story is quite compelling and Harden does a great job of giving it voice. I really ate this up. When I read at the end that No had already published his story, I got the feeling that this was a bit of a coattail project -- getting an author who had already written a successful book about North Korea to repackage No's story, and then padding it out with information about Kim Il Sung -- perhaps a publisher/editor move?. I do think it all works -- it's just that it didn't feel like the most natural fit. I think a story just about No would have been just as compelling. Still -- a great story all around.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Lanter

    My grandfather served in Korea and I never really learned much about his experiences or the war itself. While this book does not rectify that, it is a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten war by the United States. It chronicles the story of a fighter pilot who famously defected from North Korea in spectacular fashion. Stealing one of the prized MiGs and landing it in South Korea. It fascinated the media even if the pilot was not rewarded as much as he should have been. Alongside this narrative, My grandfather served in Korea and I never really learned much about his experiences or the war itself. While this book does not rectify that, it is a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten war by the United States. It chronicles the story of a fighter pilot who famously defected from North Korea in spectacular fashion. Stealing one of the prized MiGs and landing it in South Korea. It fascinated the media even if the pilot was not rewarded as much as he should have been. Alongside this narrative, you have Kim Il Sung who founded North Korea as we know through a variety of underhanded tactics. I have been wanting to better understand how North Korea happened and Kim Il Sung was quite skilled in how he grabbed hold of the country and never let it go. This book does not go in great depth of either plotline but it is engaging to read and seems to be fairly well-researched. This is probably its greatest strength because it is less than 250 pages and you can get a nice overview of the Korean War and Kim Il Sung in addition to a very interesting and somewhat shocking story about "Kenny Howe" as he become known in the US as well. I feel for the North Koreans after reading this book and I find myself wondering, will there ever be hope for those stuck under such a repressive government? A lasting impression or lingering questions is certainly the mark of a good book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ginni

    When I won this ARC from a Goodreads Giveaway, my thought was that I would read it, review it, and then give it to my brother, who loves war history. Now I'm pretty sure I will just let him borrow it. I went into this book knowing next to nothing about the Korean War, making this a sobering and eye-opening read. Its writing style feels closer to a novel than it to a textbook, but it is certainly full of extensive research. Shortcomings on both sides of the war are given the same scrutiny. This i When I won this ARC from a Goodreads Giveaway, my thought was that I would read it, review it, and then give it to my brother, who loves war history. Now I'm pretty sure I will just let him borrow it. I went into this book knowing next to nothing about the Korean War, making this a sobering and eye-opening read. Its writing style feels closer to a novel than it to a textbook, but it is certainly full of extensive research. Shortcomings on both sides of the war are given the same scrutiny. This is not a propaganda piece. Once I really started reading, I was as immersed in this story as I was in Game of Thrones, which I was reading at the same time. Don't get me wrong; there are unpolished or awkward sentences here and there. And because it's a true story, it sometimes doesn't feel like the perfect narrative arc that you expect from writing of this caliber. But those things aren't enough to keep me from recommending this to pretty much anyone.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy

    I really loved this. Harden does a fantastic job of telling an engaging, "Reader's Digest" version of the Korean War and Kim Il Sung's rise to power. So many history books try to impress with their page count, but Harden goes the opposite direction; he tackles the highlights and keeps his story moving. I had expected Harden to use the story of No Kum Sok's defection from the North as a gimmick (i.e., boring war history gets livened up by a heroic escape). But, that wasn't the case at all. Instea I really loved this. Harden does a fantastic job of telling an engaging, "Reader's Digest" version of the Korean War and Kim Il Sung's rise to power. So many history books try to impress with their page count, but Harden goes the opposite direction; he tackles the highlights and keeps his story moving. I had expected Harden to use the story of No Kum Sok's defection from the North as a gimmick (i.e., boring war history gets livened up by a heroic escape). But, that wasn't the case at all. Instead, No's story illuminates the human toll of Kim Il Sung's horrific leadership and the astonishing role of the air war above Korea.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Feisty Harriet

    I have read a lot about current conditions in North Korea, but this part-bio of Kim Il-Sung, part history of the Korean War, and part-bio of No Kum-Sok, a young Korean fighter pilot who defected with an intact Soviet MiG, something American intelligence had been trying to get their hands on for years. I think Harden did a great job of going back and forth between the two characters and their histories and backgrounds, as well as the time they were contemporaries, with No Kum-Sok fighting in Kim I have read a lot about current conditions in North Korea, but this part-bio of Kim Il-Sung, part history of the Korean War, and part-bio of No Kum-Sok, a young Korean fighter pilot who defected with an intact Soviet MiG, something American intelligence had been trying to get their hands on for years. I think Harden did a great job of going back and forth between the two characters and their histories and backgrounds, as well as the time they were contemporaries, with No Kum-Sok fighting in Kim Il-Sung's desperate air force. My grandpa fought in Korea, but I didn't know much about the war from either side until I picked up this book which gave me a pretty good intro, I think.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    This book was an interesting and easy read, without the heavy political jargon. It provides a good background about how North Korea came to be with a unique view of the Korean War from the view of the North Korean Air Force. While the book is about war and defection, the author does not point fingers at any side but gives each side's perspective. However, I would have liked it if the author had gone into more depth about the war and Kim Il Sung. I was given this book as a Goodreads giveaway, how This book was an interesting and easy read, without the heavy political jargon. It provides a good background about how North Korea came to be with a unique view of the Korean War from the view of the North Korean Air Force. While the book is about war and defection, the author does not point fingers at any side but gives each side's perspective. However, I would have liked it if the author had gone into more depth about the war and Kim Il Sung. I was given this book as a Goodreads giveaway, however it in no way influenced my opinion of the book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Theresa Pollara

    I received a copy of the novel for free. Usually there are historians or there are novelists. It is rare for the two to come together. This author has accomplished that rare merger. The author's style moves like a novel and yet has the historical accuracy denoting extensive research. The result is a must have book for war historians and those interested in the Korean war and it's current echoes. The ONLY addition which would make this tome better would be the inclusion of a map of Asia with an ins I received a copy of the novel for free. Usually there are historians or there are novelists. It is rare for the two to come together. This author has accomplished that rare merger. The author's style moves like a novel and yet has the historical accuracy denoting extensive research. The result is a must have book for war historians and those interested in the Korean war and it's current echoes. The ONLY addition which would make this tome better would be the inclusion of a map of Asia with an insert of Korea for the geographically challenged reader.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Wanda

    This doesn't have the drama of Hillenbrand's Unbroken but the story of No Kum Sok's defection from North Korea in a Soviet MiG-15 showcases the same kind of courage and resilience. It presents a good overview of the brutal dictatorship of Kim Il Sung and the atrocities committed by both sides during the Korean War. Overall, very informative and inspirational. I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads program.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Suzi

    This book is a great read. Clever the way the author unfolds the lives in parallel of the two protagonists. Interesting to have a glimpse of the early days of the Kim regime in North Korea and how America conducted itself during the Korean War. Well worth reading for anyone with an interest in Korea. Also airplane aficionados might enjoy the information on the MiG and Sabre aircraft.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

    Great resource to learn about the Korean War, which I knew next to nothing about. It bogged down somewhat in the middle so I deducted a star for that. It was nice to have an epilogue that gives a little information about current day North Korea and about No Kum Sok and his family. Well worth reading.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Fernando

    American fighter-bomber pilots often preferred napalm. As one explained, "When you've hit a village and have seen it go up in flames, you know you've accomplished something."

  29. 4 out of 5

    Trish

    Very interesting, bit dry.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Craig Rowland

    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 is another lengthy title by Blaine Harden. He in fact tells two stories, which are only remotely connected. Over 240 pages Harden gives a brief history of the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and its founding father, the Great Leader and Hero of the Revolution, the Father of the Korean People, Marshall Kim Il Sung. The second 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 is another lengthy title by Blaine Harden. He in fact tells two stories, which are only remotely connected. Over 240 pages Harden gives a brief history of the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and its founding father, the Great Leader and Hero of the Revolution, the Father of the Korean People, Marshall Kim Il Sung. The second story is that of MiG pilot No Kum Sok and his defection to the South. Harden tries to link the two starting with a wholly unbelievable encounter No is alleged to have had with the Great Leader. In a reminiscence that reads more like a rose-coloured coulda-shoulda than a piece of credible history, No claims to have have the chance to murder Kim Il Sung at point-blank range, and has regretted not doing so ever since. I had a problem with Harden's earlier book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West because it lacked credibility. In that book as in this one, Harden comes off as exceptionally gullible, accepting whatever his North Korean subjects tell him. No's testimony has been tainted by sixty years of delusional revisionism, wherein he imagines himself as an uncrowned hero of a united Korean peninsula if only he had finished Kim off when he had the chance. While Harden's story of No's escape by flying his MiG across the DMZ was sullied by its lack of credibility and delusions of convenience, I found his account of Kim Il Sung's role in the establishment of the DPRK, as well as his ways of holding a tight rein on power by liquidating all opposition, to be a gripping read. I have read many books on North Korean history, and Harden seems to know when to ice the story with sensationalism and when to lay off. I found it most interesting how Kim played both Stalin and Mao and used each leader to his advantage. The detailed map at the beginning of the book misplaces Mount Paektu, where the Great Leader established his secret camp during the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. Harden assigned it about 100 km northeast of its actual location on the DPRK-PR China frontier. This is a significant error, as much of the story about the founding of the DPRK takes place at the secret camp.

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