‘King of Spies’ takes readers into the life of Donald Nichols

“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 through 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.

“He was an unbreakable war hero whose creativity and energy as a spymaster helped save countless lives in a confused and bloody war,” Harden said of Nichols. “He operated beyond the bounds of legality and morality. He was a superspy with a dark side.”

During his clandestine 11-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 58 American intelligence officers and airmen, 200 South Korean intelligence officers and more than 700 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 “U.S. 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 commanders, who helped to redesign and modify the U.S. F-86 to better equip them during an air fight.

Donald Nichols

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 Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s chief of intelligence, Army Major Gen. 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 a 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.

“Nichols knew his agents were disposable,” Harden said. “When he sent them inside North Korea, he expected most would be captured, tortured or killed, with as many as eight out of 10 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. Gen. E. Stratemeyer, the 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 stranglehold on the people because they eliminate their enemies and have a narrative to explain their actions. During the Korean War, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, guessed that American bombs killed about 20 percent of the North Korean population, roughly 1.9 million people.

“The Kim family is able to stoke anti-American hatred and perpetuate its rule, all the while telling a terrifying, fact-based story,” Harden said. “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 20 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 U.S. 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 percent 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, hardworking and creative as he gained knowledge about the inner-workings of the North Korean regime.

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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.