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.