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Kenneth Rowe, who piloted North Korean warplane to freedom, dies at 90

Mr. Rowe, then known as No Kum-Sok, pretended to be a loyal fighter for North Korea during the Korean War. All the while, he was plotting to defect.

North Korean pilot No Kum-Sok, who later took the name Kenneth Rowe, at the Kimpo Air Base near Seoul after flying a MiG-15 across the border to defect in September 1953. (Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock)

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

The jet was coming the wrong way on the takeoff patterns. Its wings were rocking and lights flashing. The North Korean pilot at the controls, Lt. 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 banked away from a North Korean patrol. The demilitarized zone, separating the Korean Peninsula, was on the horizon. He pushed his Soviet-made MiG-15 to its limits, climbing to 23,000 feet over the no man’s land of the DMZ and then barreling down into South Korea at more than 600 mph. In a stroke of luck, the U.S. radar system was down for maintenance.

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

So began his new life in the whirlwind of Cold War politics and propaganda. His plane was a major military coup, handing the Americans the first intact model of the latest MiG-15bis that was a main adversary of the F-86s in the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The pilot later 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 through President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration over whether to pay a $100,000 bounty promised to any defector who came across with a MiG. He eventually received it after the president relented.

Mr. Rowe, who died Dec. 26 at age 90 at his home in Daytona Beach, Fla., said he didn’t know about the reward money at the time. He only sought to breathe “free 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, his 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 prop to the South. But the MiG-15bis, with its signature slant-back wing design, was far more advanced.

The warplanes, based in China’s Manchuria near the North Korean border, had changed the air war in the Koreas. The MiG-15s were outclassing some U.S. warplanes, including the F-84 Thunderjets. Allied forces, fighting under U.N. auspices, halted daylight bombing runs.

The F-86 matched better against the MiGs in air duels, according to military historians. But the North Koreans and their Chinese allies still had an advantage as 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 Maj. Chuck Yeager, who in 1947 was the first aviator to break the sound barrier and who later pushed jets to the edge of the atmosphere in tests that provided foundations for future space missions. (Mr. Rowe’s MiG is now part of the collection at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio.)

After Mr. Rowe landed on Sept. 21, 1953, he tore up a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. For years, Mr. Rowe had pretended to be ultraloyal to the regime as he moved up the military ranks, racking up dozens of combat flights. He was always waiting for his chance to make a break.

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

No one at hand on the base (now the site of Gimpo International Airport) could speak Korean or Japanese, which Mr. Rowe knew fluently from being raised in Japanese-occupied Korea. Eventually, Mr. Rowe ended up in the office of an intelligence specialist, Air Force Maj. Donald Nichols, who spoke passable Korean, according to the events described in Blaine Harden’s 2015 book, “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot,” about Kim’s rise and Mr. Rowe’s escape.

Mr. Rowe had his first taste of Coca-Cola, which he loved, and U.S. military chow, 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’s 55-page report on the questioning of Mr. Rowe described him as a rich source of information on North Korean, Chinese and Soviet operations. “He was able to recall air units, personnel strength, structure and number of aircraft assigned to respective units,” the report said, according to Harden’s book.

Yet interrogators seemed unconvinced that Mr. Rowe did not know of the $100,000 enticement (nearly $1 million in today’s economy) to defect with a MiG under a program code-named “Operation Moolah.” In the closing months of the war, leaflets were dropped across North Korea with the offer.

Question: “Didn’t you read the leaflets we dropped regarding the reward?”

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

It took years before the money was paid. Eisenhower thought it unseemly to so generously reward defectors and worried it could unset the fragile peace on the Korean Peninsula. His advisers and military brass persuaded him that reneging on the offer would be a misstep in the Cold War’s ideological tussles between East and West.

Mr. Rowe was moved to Okinawa in late 1953, where he was put on the payroll at $300 a month. He splurged on Japanese food, a West German-made Contax camera and U.S.-style clothes.

When he arrived in San Francisco on May 4, 1954 — to a gaggle of journalists and a newsreel crew — he impressed the crowd with his improving English and all-American attire.

“Looking like an American Joe College in sports clothes and a porkpie hat,” according to an Associated Press story.

Enduring occupation, then Kim’s regime

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

He kept his faith and family connections 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, particularly idolizing the United States.

Mr. Rowe long plotted his escape even as he portrayed himself to peers as a zealot of Kim’s rule. He first became a naval cadet, seeking to possibly flee at a foreign port. He then transferred to the air corps 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 would seek revenge. “I guess the damage is done,” he said in 1962 shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen. His mother, who reached 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 mechanical engineering degree and went on to work for defense and aerospace companies. He later 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 son; and a grandson.

At a 2010 memorial for Korean War veterans in Vero Beach, Fla., a few who served refused to attend because of Mr. Rowe’s participation. Despite his risky defection, they objected to sharing the event with a former foe.

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