Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Book Review: The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot

Title: 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
Author: Blaine Harden
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Viking Press (2015)
ISBN-10: 0670016578 
ISBN-13: 9780670016570

Blaine Harden's juxtaposing portraits of Kim Il-sung and No Kum-sok speak of stories much deeper than you might expect. This book isn't what I'd classify as a typical North Korean propaganda smashing, ten-foot-pole distanced shock-value reporting. It's equal parts entertaining, readily accessible, and shrewdly paced.

I held a passing familiarity with No's famous 1953 defection but I was wrong to think that this book could teach me little else. The book's quite different from Harden's previous work "Escape from Camp 14" and more akin to Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City"; a chronological text novelized in two opposing parts. Each divided chapter didactically explores the the two sides of the North Korean military coin. Much like Larson's "Devil in the White City" focused on the improbable setting up and lasting aftermath of the the 1893 Chicago's World Fair, the commonality of Harden's work is the time and setting; pre- and post-war North Korea. 

The character studies and comparative interactions between major players far exceed the expectation for an ambitions work linking the rise of one world-famous dictator and his cronies with one esoterically noted but otherwise unremarkable fighter pilot. Harden blends both stories without political bias and instead focuses on the developing personas in their time without the subjective benefit of Western bias and 20/20 historical judgment. It's an impressive skill that I feel many other historians could learn from.

I don't want to give much else away but for a combined biography, the execution is masterful. It's damn good reading and well Worth your time.


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