King Of Spies: The Dark Reign and Ruin of an American Spymaster in Korea by Blaine Harden delves into the black-ops life of Donald Nichols during, before, and shortly after the Korean War. This biography allows readers to understand the current conflict with North Korea and the necessary steps taken to handle the Kim dynasties through the decades. The regime’s DNA has not changed, as it is still the same system of torture, rape, and murder.
Although Nichols did not have much of a formal education, and his training was limited to a short course on spy techniques, nevertheless, he rose in the ranks from Sergeant to Major. His expertise as a master spy came from immersing himself with knowledge of the inner-workings of the North Korean government and military. Harden describes Nichols, “He was an unbreakable war hero whose creativity and energy as a spymaster helped save countless lives in a confused and bloody war. He operated beyond the bounds of legality and morality. He was a superspy with a dark side.”
During his clandestine eleven-year career he developed his own base, secret army, and rules. Within Korea there were three centers of intelligence: the emerging CIA, army intelligence, the largest outfit, and NICK, created by Nichols where he supervised up to fifty-eight American intelligence officers and airmen, two hundred South Korean intelligence officers, and more than seven hundred agents comprised of defectors and refugees from North Korea. The Air Force brass quickly recognized him as “the best intelligence agent in the Far East.” Nichols was given open-ended authority to gather intelligence and conduct sabotage, demolition, and guerrilla operations behind enemy lines.
Harden emphasized how “US Air Force generals depended on Nichols just before, during, and immediately after the Korean War. He broke codes, found weaknesses in enemy tanks and jets, and identified most of the targets destroyed by American bombs in North Korea. During the war he reported only to the General of the 5th Air Force, Earle Everard ‘Pat’ Partridge. For his accomplishments Air Force Generals gave him an abundance of praise, promotions, and medals.”
His accomplishments included helping to find weaknesses in the Soviet tank, earning him a Silver Star, salvaging a Soviet MIG 15, and then finding the electronic secrets on how it worked. This information was sent to the commanders who helped to redesign and modify the US F-86 to better equip them during an air fight. Hardin recounts in the book how in the early days of the conflict as the American GIs were retreating and being killed, Nichols’ “team of cryptographers broke the North Korean army codes, which helped the American forces hold the line, saving them from being pushed off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula as well as helping in finding the targets for bombings of North Korea.”
Another achievement was his prediction of North Korea invading the South. This was much to the chagrin of General Douglas MacArthur’s chief of intelligence, army major General Charles A. Willoughby, who predicted just the opposite. Hardin recounts, “The American Ambassador in Seoul, John Muccio, wrote a response to Willoughby who tried to oust Nichols, ‘In my opinion, there is no other American intelligence unit or agency now operating in South Korea which produces a larger volume of useful intelligence material on Communist and subversive activities than does Mr. Nichols’ unit.’”
Harden also delves into the moral question, how far should covert operators go to save American lives, and does that include a legal license to murder? In his own words, Nichols described himself as a “thief, assassin, judge, jury, and executioner.” This master spy entered the dark side when he became a part of, the Republic of Korea Head Of State, Syngman Rhee’s world that included torturing, beheading, and killing tens of thousands of South Koreans. He was not a particularly nice guy. For example, there is a picture of him standing on the roof of the South Korean Army Headquarters next to a severed head in a bucket.
In reading this book, Americans also can get a better understanding of the current crisis. The present-day North Korean Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, is the grandson of Kim II-sung, the leader during the Korean War. Back then, as today, there’s no U.S. Embassy in Pyongyang, few Western business travelers, and even fewer tourists flowing in and out. American intelligence officers are unable to blend in undetected or gain a foothold. Harden explained, “Nichols knew his agents were disposable. When he sent them inside North Korea, he expected most would be captured, tortured, or killed, with as many as eight out of ten never coming back. Yet, he did provide answers for his bosses. I detail in the book how he conceived, organized, and lead covert missions inside North Korea. General E. Stratemeyer, commander of Far East Air Forces, wrote in his diary during the first year of the Korean War that Nichols had ‘performed the impossible.’”
Fast-forward to today, where the North Korean regime is still repressive, with closed borders and secret police. They have a strangle hold on the people because they eliminate their enemies and have a narrative to explain their actions. During the Korean War, General Curtis E. LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command guessed that American bombs killed about 20 percent of the North Korean population, roughly 1,900,000 people.
Harden feels, “The Kim family is able to stoke anti-American hatred and perpetuate its rule, all the while telling a terrifying, fact-based story. It is a warning to the North Korean people that Americans will once again come with bombs, fire, and death, and the only ones to protect them are the leaders. I spoke to more than twenty North Korean defectors who were taught to fear and hate the Americans. Even after they arrived in South Korea they were very reluctant to criticize ‘the Great Leader, the Dear Leader, or the current leader.’ With their cruel and unsavory tactics, they not only keep the people at bay, but countries as well. These leaders through the years have used extortion and repressive techniques, but now they have missiles threatening South Korea, Japan, and the US. It is harder today to infiltrate, because North Korea concentrates all its resources on the border and has new technology for detection. So Nichols’ 20% success rate of infiltration is a far better ratio than what is transpiring today.”
This book delves into an engrossing hidden history of wartime espionage. Too bad, there is not someone like Nichols today. Although he was unsavory he was successful in gathering fact-filled intelligence. His superiors described him as brave, hard working, and creative as he gained knowledge about the inner-workings of the North Korean regime.