‘King of Spies’ explores the dark past of a key Korean War figure

Author Blaine Harden, who grew up in Moses Lake, talks about his new book, “King of Spies,” about North Korea and its tormented relationship with America.

Lit Life

Seattle author Blaine Harden has become an expert on North Korea, a country shackled by a tragic past and a fraught present. He’s written about a harrowing escape from a North Korean labor camp (“Escape from Camp 14”) and a North Korean pilot who flew a MiG-15 Soviet jet out of North Korea and into the hands of the Americans (“The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot”). But the true story he tells in his third book, “King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea,” (Viking, 260 pp., $27) may be the strangest of the three.

Donald Nichols was a seventh-grade dropout who enlisted in the U.S. military to escape the dire poverty of his upbringing. After World War II he finagled a posting to South Korea. Armed with nothing but a facility with languages and a facile intelligence, Nichols ingratiated himself with the dictatorial South Korean leader Syngman Rhee and began spying for the U.S. and the South Koreans — at the peak of his power during the Korean War, he commanded 52 Air Force officers and airmen and 900 Korean agents, gathering priceless information on bombing targets in North Korea.

Nichols was brilliant, relentless, and entirely without a conscience. “He dropped people out of airplanes,” says Harden. “It’s almost like a Tony Soprano kind of thing. You can be a manager and also be a very violent individual.” And then he fell from grace, was declared mentally ill by military doctors and evacuated out of the country. Late in life he was disgraced by revelations of sexual abuse of minors.

Author appearance

Blaine Harden

The author of “King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea” will speak

at 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (free; 206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com, free), and at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at Folio, the Seattle Athenaeum ($10 at the door; $5 for Folio members; 206-398-9050 or folioseattle.org)

Harden, a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, grew up in Moses Lake. He answered some questions about his new book, about North Korea and its tormented relationship with America. This is an edited version of that conversation:

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Q: How did you become an expert on North and South Korea?

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