Over the years, America has welcomed dissidents from all over the world via all kinds of modes of transportation – by foot, boat, car, train and plane.
But a Russian MiG-15 fighter jet?
If not for America’s Air Defense Radar being shut down for some routine maintenance one day back in 1953, one of the most celebrated defections in history may never have happened.
Lt. No Kum-Sok, who died just after Christmas at the age of 90, was a 21-year-old pilot with the North Korean Air Force when he slipped away from his 16-plane squadron of MIGs flying near Pyongyang. Raised in a Christian home, Kum-Sok had already lived through the Japanese occupation of his country during World War II and the communist takeover of his homeland. He loved to fly but was fed up with the oppressiveness of the communist regime.
“[In North Korea] You flew until you died,” he once shared. “I almost lost my life many times.”
An armistice had halted the fighting in Korea by late July of 1953, but Kum-Sok was determined to make his way to permanent freedom as the fall approached. He plotted, prayed, and considered his options. It was September 21, 1953 when he decided to just go for it.
“I figured I had a 20 percent chance of success,” he wrote in his memoir. “I thought that was good enough.”
Flying at 23,000 feet, he dropped in altitude and made a beeline for an American Air Force base just 13 minutes away at Kimpo.
At the time, America was hungry for any intelligence it could obtain on the Soviet-made MiGs. In fact, the government had dropped leaflets across North Korea offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who could deliver one fully intact. By God’s grace, America’s radar system was down that day in September, so Kum-Sok was able to land at the American base practically undetected. Yet the Lord’s protection and provision were once more on display – while landing the plane, he nearly collided with an American F-86 going in the opposite direction.
“I unfastened my oxygen mask and breathed free air for the first time in my life,” he recalled. Kum-Sok then ripped a photograph of North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung from his instrument panel.
American flyers surrounded the MiG and confiscated Kum-Sok’s sidearm.
“Nobody seemed to know what to do,” he said. “I shouted ‘Motorcar, motorcar, motorcar,’ which was about the only English I remembered from high school, hoping that someone would bring an automobile to drive me to headquarters.”
The Americans eventually understood him, and they would go on interrogating and questioning him for weeks. Although the North Korean lieutenant said he knew nothing about the $100,000 reward, he happily accepted it. He then changed his name to Kenneth Hill Rowe, earned an engineering degree and worked for years in military intelligence. He would eventually become a college professor.
A Catholic, Kenneth Rowe found himself inside the offices of Catholic Charities on the 65th floor of the Empire State Building. It was there that he met Clara; they began to date and eventually married. They had two children, Bonnie and Raymond. Clara and Kenneth were happily married for 62 years.
Of all his accomplishments, Kenneth Rowe said he was most proud of becoming an American citizen.