No Kum Sok: Defector from the North

17 September 2020 by

Elise Horspool

No Kum Sok dressed in American fatigues for a press conference in Seoul the day after defecting. JK0881.

On this day in 1953, to the amazement of the Americans and Australians stationed at Kimpo airfield in South Korea, a Russian built MiG-15bis  jet fighter landed on their runway. Coming from the north – the opposite direction of the F-86 Sabre jets landing that day – the MiG wagged its wings and fired off coloured flares, demonstrating a distress signal to the gun batteries defending the airfield. As the Korean Armistice Agreement had recently been signed, defence at Kimpo was lax. The radar was off for routine maintenance and the airfield was buzzing with activity

Luck was on the pilot’s side; no one noticed the MiG until it almost collided with a Sabre landing from the other end of the runway. As the MiG pilot taxied between two parked Sabres, awaiting pilots jumped into their cockpits and had their guns aimed, fingers on their triggers.

Meanwhile No. 77 Squadron RAAF’s Gloster Meteors were scrambled to defend the airfield with the US 4th Fighter Wing. All other aircraft waiting to land were diverted to other airfields at Osan and Suwon. Kimpo airfield was either under attack or the enemy might pursue their errant defector and shoot his aircraft to bits on the ground.

Photograph taken by Leading Aircraftman Basil Clarke, a RAAF photographer serving with No. 77 Squadron, shortly after the MiG-15 landed on 21 September 1953. The Military Police confiscated cameras in the area, but Clark was able to hide his and snap a photo. P05112.001.

To demonstrate his willing defection, the 21 year old pilot, Lieutenant No Kum Sok threw a photograph of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to the ground and put his hands up. Pilots and aircrew, including Australians from No. 77 Squadron, rushed over to see the MiG-15 up close. One of the first people to approach No was Flight Lieutenant Norman Williams. No was escorted from the cockpit by armed – albeit friendly and curious – Americans and taken to a jeep.

Portrait of Flight Lieutenant Norman Williams by Roy Rousel (1957). ART27515.

No was born in North Korea on 10 January 1932. His father worked for a Japanese company, Noguchi Corporation, and his mother was from a middle-class family. His parents were well-educated Catholics who were sympathetic to the the West. His father, who was the pitcher on his school baseball team, impressed on No a curiosity about America and spoke to him in English to encourage him to learn the language. 

No posing for American photographers in his North Korean flying suit and equipment. P04624.001.

No was accepted to the Chongjin Naval Academy and later transferred to the air force, in 1951 becoming the youngest North Korean pilot at the age of 19. Trained in Manchuria by Soviet pilots, No flew 100 operational sorties before deciding to defect to South Korea. His father had died from illness during the Second World War and his mother had been evacuated to South Korea in December 1950 during the Hungnam evacuation. Five of No’s comrades or commanders were executed, including his best friend, in response to his defection.

The MiG-15 was hidden in a hangar before later being dismantled and shipped to Okinawa, covered in a US Air Force scheme as a disguise. In Okinawa  it was test flown by Major Chuck Yeager (the first pilot to exceed the speed of sound in 1947) and Captain Tom Collins.

No was employed by the US Air Force Intelligence at Okinawa for several months providing information. Unknown to him, the United States Air Force had dropped pamphlets as part of “Operation Moolah” to entice a Soviet, North Korean or Chinese pilot to defect and deliver a working MiG to the allies in early 1953. The offer included political asylum and a cash reward of $100,000 for the pilot. This offer was controversial, and unfunded.

The United States reluctantly gave No the reward money in 1954 after he migrated to the US. He used it to help support his mother and study mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware. He met Vice-President Richard Nixon, became a US citizen, and married a fellow North Korean migrant from Kaesong. No anglicised his name to Kenneth Rowe (“No” is pronounced “Ro” in Korean) and worked for Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed and several other companies before becoming an aeronautical engineering professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He retired in 2000 and lives in Florida.

No is photographed prior to the press conference in Seoul, escorted by two Americans. JK0883.

No Kum Sok is thought to be the first North Korean military defector after the end of the war. Since 1953, over 30,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea – this number does not include the hundreds of thousands who have defected to China or Russia. No’s brave defection has been followed by other North Korean pilots: An unnamed pilot landed his MiG-15 in South Korea in 1960, Major Park Soon Kuk flew his MiG-15 into South Korea in 1970,  Captain Lee Ung Pyong landed his MiG-19 in 1983 at an undisclosed South Korean base, and Captain Lee Chul Soo flew his MiG-19 jet into South Korean air space and was escorted to Suwon in 1996.

No’s MiG-15 was first offered for return to the Soviet Union (an offer which was not acknowledged) before being shipped to the Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. It is currently on display in the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The Memorial holds an example of a Russian built MiG-15bis jet fighter, the fuselage section of which is on display in Aircraft Hall.

Read more about the Memorial’s MiG-15 jet here: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C260309

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Further reading:

A MiG-15 to Freedom: Memoir of the Wartime North Korean Defector who First Delivered the Secret Fighter Jet to the Americans in 1953,  No Kum Sok with J.Roger Osterholm (1996).

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, Blaine Harden (2015).

“Operation Moolah: The plot to steal a MiG-15”, Herbert A Friedman: http://www.psywarrior.com/Moolah.html

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot with Blaine Harden and Kenneth Rowe, 21 March 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSqyo099PTQ