Kenneth Rowe, Who Defected From North Korea With His Jet, Dies at 90
Two months after the Korean War armistice, Lt. No Kum-Sok of the North Korean Air Force broke away from his 16-plane patrol near the nation’s capital, Pyongyang; streaked undetected into South Korea in his Soviet-built MIG jet fighter; and landed at a military airfield manned by the United States Air Force and airmen from allied nations.
A veteran of more than 100 combat flights, the 21-year-old pilot climbed out of his silver swept-wing plane, which was emblazoned with a red star and bristling with machine guns, as astonished airmen surrounded him. He had fulfilled his dream of fleeing Communism, and he brought a gift for the United States Air Force: — the first intact MIG to fall into its hands.
A year later, he had a new name — Kenneth Rowe — and a new country, having begun life in America as a college student.
When Mr. Rowe died at 90 on Dec. 26 at his home in Daytona Beach, Fla., he was remembered for having handed America an intelligence bonanza with his headline-making flight in a MIG-15bis, a late-model version of the fighters that dueled with American F-86 Sabre jets in the Korean War.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Bonnie Rowe.
Mr. Rowe had become a member of North Korea’s Communist Party and “played the Communist zealot,” as he put it, while serving in the Korean War. But he had been influenced by his anti-Communist father and his mother’s Roman Catholic upbringing to yearn for life in a democracy. He had been thinking of a way to get to America since Korea was divided after World War II and the Soviet-backed Kim Il-sung imposed Communist rule over what became North Korea.
When he landed at the Kimpo airport on the morning of Sept. 21, 1953, he had seemingly pulled off a flawless escape. But disaster almost struck. As his wheels hit the runway, an F-86 that had just landed came roaring toward him from the opposite end. The two pilots brushed past each other, barely avoiding a collision.
“I unfastened my oxygen mask and breathed free air for the first time in my life,” he remembered in his memoir, “A MiG-15 to Freedom” (1996), written with J. Roger Osterholm.
He parked amid a cluster of American warplanes, tore a framed photograph of Kim Il-sung from his instrument panel, jumped out of his cockpit and threw the picture to the ground.
And then, as he remembered it, “all hell broke loose around the air base.” Dozens of airmen scrambled to reach him, and the commander of the Fifth Air Force, Lt. Gen. Samuel E. Anderson, rushed to the base.
“Nobody seemed to know what to do,” Mr. Rowe recalled. “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.”
Two pilots put him into a jeep; told him to turn over his semiautomatic pistol, which he gladly did; and brought him to a building for interrogation. The incident became a major news story.
“Red Lands MIG Near Seoul and Surrenders to the Allies,” The New York Times reported in a Page 1 headline.
Seeking to determine the MIG’s strengths and weaknesses in anticipation of future conflicts with the Soviet Union and its allies, the Air Force dispatched some of its most accomplished test pilots — including Maj. Chuck Yeager, who had gained fame in 1947 as the first flier to break the sound barrier — to put the MIG-15 through strenuous maneuvers. Their verdict: The F-86 was the superior warplane.
Kenneth Hill Rowe, as he came to be known, was born on Jan. 10, 1932, in a town of 10,000 in the northern part of the Japanese-occupied Korean Peninsula. His father, No Zae, was an administrator for a Japanese industrial conglomerate in Korea. His mother, Veronica Ko, was a homemaker.
He became a naval cadet in 1949 as an avenue to completing a free college education — and perhaps one day getting a chance to defect at a foreign port. He was later transferred to the Air Force and received jet-fighter training from Soviet airmen in Manchuria. He got his wings at 19.
Eight weeks after the Korean armistice, he peeled off from his patrol, reached an altitude of 23,000 feet and turned south for a 13-minute flight across the Demilitarized Zone to Kimpo.
Luck was with him. The American air defense radar just north of Kimpo had been shut down for routine maintenance, and neither American planes aloft nor antiaircraft crews had spotted him.
During the late stages of the Korean War, the Air Force had dropped leaflets over North Korea offering a $100,000 reward to the first North Korean pilot to defect with a MIG. Mr. Rowe maintained that he knew nothing of that reward and said he had simply wanted to live a free life. But he accepted it.
He came to the United States in May 1954 and was something of a celebrity. He was introduced to Vice President Richard M. Nixon, was interviewed by Dave Garroway on NBC’s “Today” program and appeared on broadcasts for the Voice of America. He received an engineering degree from the University of Delaware, became an American citizen in 1962 and worked as an engineer for major defense and aerospace companies. He was later a professor of engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Rowe is survived by his wife, Clara (Kim) Rowe; his son, Raymond; and a grandson.
When Mr. Rowe arrived in the United States, his MIG-15bis was brought over as well, for additional flight testing by the Air Force.
Seven decades later, that plane still exists, and resides at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.
Its red star repainted, it is on display alongside an American F-86 Sabre jet, a remembrance of the dogfights of the Korean War in the swath of sky known as MIG Alley.
Alex Traub contributed reporting.