Kenneth Rowe Who Escaped From North Korea With His Jet Has Died At Age 90

Two months after the end of the Korean War, Lt. No Kum-Sok of the North Korean Air Force broke away from his 16-plane patrol near the country’s capital, Pyongyang. He flew his Soviet-built MIG jet fighter into South Korea without being seen and landed at a military airfield staffed by US Air Force and allied airmen.

The 21-year-old pilot had been in more than 100 combat flights. He got out of his silver swept-wing plane, which had a red star on it and was full of machine guns, as shocked airmen surrounded him.


He had finally gotten away from Communism, and as a gift to the US Air Force, he brought the first MIG that was still in one piece. A year later, he had a new name, Kenneth Rowe, and he was living in a new country. He had moved to the United States to go to college.

When Mr. Rowe died on Dec. 26 at his home in Daytona Beach, Fla., at the age of 90, he was remembered for his newsworthy flight in a MIG-15bis, a late-model version of the fighters that fought with American F-86 Sabre jets during the Korean War. This flight gave the U.S. a wealth of intelligence.


Bonnie Rowe, who was his daughter, told people that he had died. Mr. Rowe joined North Korea’s Communist Party and, as he put it, “played the Communist zealot” during the Korean War. But his anti-Communist father and his Roman Catholic mother’s upbringing made him want to live in a democracy.

He had been thinking about how to get to America ever since Korea was split up after World War II and Kim Il-sung, who was backed by the Soviet Union, made North Korea a Communist country.

When he landed at the Kimpo airport on September 21, 1953, he seemed to have gotten away without a hitch. But disaster almost struck. As soon as his wheels hit the runway, a just-landed F-86 came roaring toward him from the other end. The two pilots flew close to each other and almost crashed into each other.


“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 landed near a group of American warplanes, ripped a picture of Kim Il-sung out of its frame, jumped out of his cockpit, and threw it on the ground.

And then, as he remembered it, “all hell broke loose around the air base.” Dozens of airmen rushed to get to him, and Lt. Gen. Samuel E. Anderson, who was in charge of the Fifth Air Force, ran 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 in a jeep, told him to give up his semiautomatic pistol, which he did gladly, and drove him to a building to question him. The event was a big story in the news. The New York Times said on Page 1 that “Red Lands MIG Near Seoul and Surrenders to the Allies.”

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In preparation for possible future wars with the Soviet Union and its allies, the Air Force sent some of its best test pilots, including Maj. Chuck Yeager, who became famous in 1947 as the first pilot to break the sound barrier, to put the MIG-15 through a lot of difficult manoeuvres. Their conclusion was that the F-86 was the best warplane.

Kenneth Hill Rowe, as he became known, was born on January 10, 1932, in a town of 10,000 people in the north of the Korean Peninsula that was ruled by Japan. His father, No Zae, was a manager in Korea for a Japanese industrial group. His mom, Veronica Ko, took care of the house.

He joined the navy as a cadet in 1949 so he could get a free college education and maybe sneak out of the country at a foreign port. Later, he was moved to the Air Force, and Soviet pilots in Manchuria taught him how to fly jet fighters. At 19, he got his wings.

Eight weeks after the Korean armistice, he left his patrol, flew up to 23,000 feet, turned south, and flew over the Demilitarized Zone to Kimpo in 13 minutes.

He had good luck. Just north of Kimpo, an American air defence radar had been turned off for routine maintenance, and neither American planes in the air nor antiaircraft crews had seen him.

Toward the end of the Korean War, the Air Force dropped leaflets over North Korea offering a $100,000 reward to the first North Korean pilot who defected with a MIG. Mr. Rowe said he didn’t know anything about that reward and that all he wanted was to be free. But he didn’t fight it.

In May 1954, he moved to the U.S., where he became something of a star. He met Vice President Richard M. Nixon and was interviewed by Dave Garroway on NBC’s “Today.”

He also spoke on Voice of America broadcasts. He got a degree in engineering from the University of Delaware, became an American citizen in 1962, and worked as an engineer for large defence and aerospace companies. Later, he taught engineering at Daytona Beach’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Mr. Rowe is survived by his daughter, his wife Clara (Kim) Rowe, his son Raymond, and a grandson. When Mr. Rowe moved to the United States, his MIG-15bis came with him so that the Air Force could test it in the air again. Even though it’s been 70 years, that plane is still around. It’s at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which is near Dayton, Ohio.

It is on display with an American F-86 Sabre jet and its red star has been repainted. This is a reminder of the dogfights that took place over MIG Alley during the Korean War… Follow us only on Lee Daily for more news like this.

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