Kenneth Rowe, the aviator who steered a North Korean airplane to safety, passed away at the age of 90.
On a bright September morning in 1953, the workers at the US-run Kimpo Air Base near Seoul were shocked to spot an unknown warplane coming in from the north. Its wings were trembling, and lights were blinking as if the North Korean pilot, Lieutenant No Kum-Sok, was trying to tell them that he wasn’t there to attack.
About fifteen minutes prior, he had steered away from a North Korean patrol and was heading to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. He had pushed his MiG-15 to its limits and had reached a height of 23,000 feet over the DMZ before descending into South Korea at a speed of more than 600 mph.
Luckily, the US radar system was down for maintenance at that time. So, when he landed at Kimpo, the snub-nose MiG almost collided with an F-86 Sabre that had just taken off from the other end of the runway. This was the beginning of his new life amidst Cold War politics and propaganda.
His plane was a significant victory for the Americans, as it was the first intact model of the advanced MiG-15bis that was a significant adversary of the F-86s in the 1950-1953 Korean War. The pilot later moved to the US, with the media covering his arrival, and changed his name to Kenneth Hill Rowe. This caused controversy over whether to pay him the $100,000 bounty offered to any defector who brought a MiG with them.
Two months after the Korean War armistice, Kenneth Rowe — then known as Lt. No Kum-Sok of the North Korean Air Force — handed the U.S. an intelligence bonanza with his headline-making flight in a Soviet-made jet fighter. He died at 90 on Dec. 26. pic.twitter.com/uNbKIA5TlZ
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The warplanes, based in China’s Manchuria near the North Korean border, had changed the air war in the Koreas as the MiG-15s were outmatching some US warplanes, including the F-84 Thunderjets. As a result, allied forces had to stop their daylight bombing runs. The F-86 was better suited for air duels, but the North Koreans and their Chinese allies still had the advantage due to their proximity to the main battle spaces known as “MiG Alley.”
The Air Force ran a series of test flights on the MiG using an experienced pilot, Maj. Chuck Yeager. The plane is now a part of the National Museum of the US Air Force in Ohio. After landing, Rowe tore up a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. He had been pretending to be loyal to the regime since childhood and had taken part in several combat flights. However, since no one at the base could speak Korean or Japanese, which Rowe knew fluently, he was eventually taken to the office of an intelligence specialist, Air Force Maj. Donald Nichols, who spoke broken Korean.
And, as a sign of a good American welcome, Rowe was offered a Coca-Cola, and US military chow, which he found unpleasant.
He was also asked to pose for propaganda-style images. Nichols’ 55-page report on the questioning of Rowe stated that he was a rich source of information on North Korean, Chinese, and Soviet operations. However, the interrogators were not convinced that he was unaware of the $100,000 enticement to defect with a MiG under “Operation Moolah.”
After President Eisenhower had agreed to the bounty, Rowe eventually received the money. He later claimed that he was not aware of the reward and was only looking for a chance to breathe “free air.” For the Pentagon, his MiG was an incredible prize. It was the first Soviet-made warplane to defect to the South since the 1950 Ilyushin Il-10, but the MiG-15bis had a more advanced slant-back wing design.
It took years for the money to be paid. President Dwight Eisenhower thought it was inappropriate to pay so much to defectors. Finally, however, his advisers and military officials convinced him that not paying the bounty would be a mistake in the ideological fight between East and West.
Rowe was then sent to Okinawa in late 1953 and was paid $300 a month. He then traveled to San Francisco in 1954 and spoke impressively in English. No Kum-Sok was born in 1932 in Sinheung, Korea, under Japanese occupation. His mother had raised him as a Christian and instilled a love for Western freedoms. Throughout his military career, he had been planning his escape while pretending to be a loyal follower of Kim’s rule. He had tried to flee by joining the navy but later transferred to the air corps and trained in Manchuria. After reaching the US, he wore dark glasses and was always wary of North Korean or Russian agents who might be after him.
He graduated from the University of Delaware in 1958 and worked with defense and aerospace companies. He later taught engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.