The carnage of war, the rise of a dictator and one North Korean defector’s life story all come together in this combination of biography, military history and exposé.
Harden (Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, 2012, etc.) skillfully fuses all his narrative threads into one united chronicle. In narrating the rise of North Korea’s first communist dictator, Kim Il Sung, Harden ties Kim’s story to that of defector No Kum Sok. The once-privileged son of a factory owner under Japanese rule, No disliked communism and its constraints from the start and began planning his escape the first time he heard Kim speak in person. No spent five years pretending to be zealously committed to the party in order to protect himself long enough to put his plan into action. He joined the navy and volunteered to become a fighter pilot in hopes of flying his way out of North Korea. Eventually, he did just that, crossing the border to South Korea in a MiG-15 and leaving Kim and communism behind for good. To complement both No’s and Kim’s stories, Harden keeps the Korean War in the foreground. He includes details that were left out of American news and military reports, using recently disclosed military documents and No’s eyewitness testimony. The U.S looms large in this book, both as a dream destination for No and a terrifying agent of death and destruction for his homeland. Using this multifaceted view, Harden explains how Kim, though laughably inept regarding military strategy and in fulfilling his nation’s needs, was able to build a lasting dictatorial dynasty.
A rewarding book with much to offer, including the likely spark of new interest in how singular choices made by both men and nations can reverberate for generations.