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King of Spies with author Blaine Harden



Best-selling author and former Washington Post Northeast Asia bureau chief Blaine Harden discusses his riveting King of Spies on its date of release. His third work on Korea recounts the untold story of one of the most powerful spies in US history working on the Peninsula during the Korean War. Books are available for purchase and signing. 

King of Spies with author Blaine Harden


Blaine Harden 



2016 Annual Dinner KwonOhJoon icon

Photo credit: Jessica Kowal


Q: How did you first learn of Donald Nichols?

A: I first heard his name from a former North Korean fighter pilot. The pilot (the protagonist of my last book) had stolen a Russian MiG at the end of the Korean War and landed it at a U.S. air base in South Korea. There, he announced his defection. The first person to speak to the pilot in the Korean language was the commander of a secret American spy outfit. It was called NICK and its commander was Donald Nichols.

Major Donald Nichols was chubby, chatty, and addicted to Coca-Cola, the pilot remembered. He also said that Nichols was terrifyingly knowledgeable about the inner-workings of the North Korean government and military. I was intrigued: Who was this Coke-swilling American spook? How had he penetrated North Korea?

The more I learned about Nichols, the more I realized that his astonishing story is a missing link in the history of the Korean War—and in the American understanding of North Korea’s abiding hatred of the United States.

Q: Until now, no historian has charted Nichols’s rise, reign, and fall. In order to tell his story, you located military service records, criminal records, letters from his time in psychiatric wards at military hospitals, and previously unpublished photographs, and interviewed family members and close military colleagues. Could you tell us more about your research and how you gained access?

A: In addition to the North Korean fighter pilot, former military intelligence officers in the U.S. and South Korea gave me firsthand accounts of Nichols’s career. His family—his nephews, a niece, and granddaughter—agreed to be interviewed and provided photographs and letters. As I learned what records to search for, I began to unearth previously unreleased archival documents and court records in a number of U.S. cities where Nichols lived, as well as in Seoul, South Korea.

The breakthrough was Nichols’s military service record, released to me under the Freedom of Information Act. The 191-page document showed that Nichols was—for more than a decade—a superstar spy with a dark side. His superiors described him as the bravest, hardest-working, and most creative intelligence operator in Korea, where he reigned from 1946 to 1957. Then, the U.S. military turned on Nichols, taking away his command and locking him up in the psych wards of military hospitals in Japan and Florida.

Q: What surprised you the most in your research?

A: I was stunned by the degree to which U.S. Air Force generals depended on Nichols when the Korean War broke out. More than any American intelligence agent early in the war, he delivered the clandestine goods. He broke codes, found weaknesses in enemy tanks and jets, and identified most of the targets destroyed by American bombs in North Korea. In return, generals showered him with praise, promotions, and medals for valor—all in secret. They also gave him near-complete autonomy to run his own army of spies. He had his own base and his own rules, which he said included a “legal license to murder.”

Even more stunning was what the air force did to Nichols in 1957. Though he had no history of mental illness, he was sent to military psychiatrists who diagnosed him as schizophrenic. They subjected him to months of electroshock and then forced him into an unwilling retirement. As a civilian, Nichols was miserable and lost. He said he felt like an “untouchable… a bastard orphan of the intelligence services.”

Q: For the first time, you prove that Nichols—an American intelligence officer—was present for a notorious wartime massacre near the South Korean town of Taejon, where South Korean army and police killed their own countrymen. The atrocity was wrongly blamed on North Korean soldiers for decades. Tell us about this discovery.

A: The key source for this information was Serbando J. Torres, an air force sergeant who served with Nichols as his closest aide before and during the Korean War. Torres knew that Nichols had watched the mass killings at Taejon—they were both stationed in the South Korean town at the time the massacre took place. Torres had also kept a handwritten letter from his former boss that explicitly describes the killings: South Korean army and police shot thousands of South Koreans civilians, some of them women and children, and buried them in shallow ditches near Taejon. In a book that Nichols later wrote about his career, he lied about the location of this killing. There were other American servicemen who also witnessed the massacre and wrote accurate reports about it that blamed the killing on South Korean forces—but those reports were classified by officials in Washington and remained so for decades.

Q: Many scholars call the Korean War America’s “forgotten war,” but given the saber-rattling of today’s nuclear-armed North Korean dictatorship, it’s clear they haven’t forgotten it. How does our current conflict with North Korea connect to Donald Nichol’s time as a spymaster?

A: Americans never really focused on the Korean War. It was hardly an occasion for patriotic celebration: more than 32,000 American combatants were killed fighting Communist forces to a most unsatisfactory tie, a stalemate that persists to this day. America’s long, chaotic failure in Vietnam soon obliterated what little popular interest there was in the conflict in Korea.

But in North Korea, it’s as if the war ended last Thursday. For nearly seven decades, the Kim family dictatorship has stoked anti-American hatred and legitimized its rule by telling a terrifying, fact-based story—one that most Americans have never heard. It’s about the brutal and relentless U.S. Air Force bombing and napalming of North Korean cities and towns during the war. By some U.S. estimates, the three-year campaign killed two million people, most of them civilians. My investigative biography of Donald Nichols—who provided the air force with most of its bomb targets—dramatizes this dark chapter of American history and helps explain the abiding fear North Koreans still have of the United States and its military.

Q: How could Nichols have been so powerful for so long in Korea but remain virtually unknown to the outside world?

A: The answer begins with Nichols himself. Unlike most CIA spymasters during the early days of the cold war, Nichols was not an upper-crust somebody. He did not have wealthy parents or an Ivy League degree or martini-drinking friends who swapped stories in the Hamptons. Nichols came out of nowhere. A 7th-grade dropout and petty thief from South Florida, he joined the military to escape a poor and dysfunctional family.

Even once he’d amassed a huge amount of power, running his own army of agents and closely connected to South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, he operated in complete secrecy in a part of the world that Americans weren’t especially interested in. After he was forced out of the service, Nichols slipped into relative anonymity. When Nichols self-published a book about his wartime adventures in 1981, few paid any attention, including his own relatives. They thought he was a braggart and a liar.

Q: Nichols has appeared briefly in a few other books and articles about the Korean War. Still, KING OF SPIES breaks ground with significant and shocking discoveries about his unchecked power and unseemly conduct in the Korean War, and conversely, his major contributions to the war effort. What are some of these new discoveries?

A: The book documents the extraordinary relationship that Nichols, a lowly master sergeant when he arrived in Korea, developed with a foreign head of state. Syngman Rhee called Nichols his “son” and Nichols called Rhee his “father.” Before the outbreak of the Korean War, as Rhee consolidated power and led an anti-Communist crusade that would kill tens of thousands of South Koreans, Nichols was invited by Rhee into a grisly world of police torture, mass killings, and chopped-off heads. A U.S. Army photograph—published for the first time in this book—shows Nichols with a group of men inspecting a severed head in a plastic bucket. Nichols personally disposed of Koreans who displeased him, pushing them out of speedboats and dropping them out of airplanes over North Korea.

KING OF SPIES breaks new historical ground in documenting the efforts of General Douglas MacArthur’s staff to discredit Nichols and force him out of Korea before the war broke out. MacArthur’s chief of intelligence, Maj. General Charles A. Willoughby, wanted Nichols gone because he was upsetting the army status quo by writing scores of reports that predicted—quite accurately, as it turned out—that a Soviet-backed North Korean invasion was imminent. When one of Nichols’s reports aroused particular concern in Washington in early 1950, Willoughby urged the U.S. ambassador in Seoul to throw Nichols out of the country. A newly discovered letter shows that the ambassador told Willoughby to buzz off.

The book also documents, for the first time, how a team of cryptographers assembled by Nichols broke North Korean battlefield codes in the early days of the war. The team warned U.S. forces about future enemy attacks and helped save the U.S. Eighth Army, which was trapped in the Pusan Perimeter at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. Nichols’s coup helped the Americans break out of the perimeter and go on the offensive.

Q: As one air force historian says in KING OF SPIES, Donald Nichols was the guy you want on your team in time of war, but in peacetime you lock him up. Could you expand on this?

A: Donald Nichols was never trained to lead men in time of war or manage them in peacetime. His formal schooling as an intel agent lasted just three months. But he rose in the military ranks—leaping from master sergeant to major and seizing command of his own intelligence unit—because of his otherworldly gifts as a spy. By his own admission, he knew little about the rules of war and struggled to understand the relationship between “morals, honor, and duty.” He had gunfights in his private living quarters with his own agents. He befriended South Korean military henchmen who were responsible for killing thousands of South Korean civilians.

Q: How is KING OF SPIES different from your previous books about Korea?

A: My previous Korea books were tightly focused on Koreans: Escape from Camp 14 is about a boy who escaped a North Korean concentration camp and The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot is about a young pilot desperate to defect to America. KING OF SPIES focuses on an American who represents the best and worst of who we are. He was an unbreakable war hero whose creativity and energy as a spymaster helped save countless lives in a confused and bloody war. But he was also ill-read, unprofessional, and improperly supervised. His loyalties were inappropriately tied to a foreign leader, Syngman Rhee, who frequently manipulated and exploited the U.S. government.

In a sense, Donald Nichols was America’s Kurtz. Like the ambitious and self-destructive figure in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Nichols operated beyond the bounds of legality, morality, and, if the U.S. Air Force psychiatrists are to be believed, beyond the bounds of sanity.



Praise for Blaine Harden’s KING OF SPIES

“Fascinating account of an espionage pioneer who thrived during the Korean War and then disappeared into disgraced obscurity…The author ably connects his ominous central figure to the larger mysterious, unresolved narrative of the Korean conflict. An engrossing hidden history of wartime espionage, with elements of derring-do and moral barbarity.”
– Kirkus Reviews

King of Spies is a dark story of espionage and evil by a wild American military spymaster in Korea, a tale both revelatory and tragic. Blaine Harden's superb book throws open a long-ignored chapter in the Korean War; a compelling and disturbing read, not to be missed.”
—David E. Hoffman, author of The Billion Dollar Spy

“Blaine Harden has now produced a fascinating trilogy of stranger-than-fiction books about North Korea. His latest, King of Spies, is about a gay, middle school dropout who was one of the few U.S. officials to predict the outbreak of the Korean War and whose espionage activities had a profound impact on the course of the war. You’ve probably never heard of Donald Nichols, but you’ll never forget him after reading King of Spies.”
—Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy

“A thrilling real-life spy story told by a terrific writer.”
—Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes

“Blaine Harden’s King of Spies is jaw-droppingly good — a quirky, unlikely, thrilling true story of intrigue and daring and depravity told by a master of the genre.”
—David Maraniss, author of Once in a Great City

“Many accounts of the Korean War are full of mystery, hinting at horrific crimes and large-scale covert operations. King of Spies pierces that mystery through the story of a remarkable American operative who took his mission to mind-boggling extremes. The adventures that fill these pages, from bleak battlefields to the corridors of power, tell us much about how the world really works.”
—Stephen Kinzer, author of Overthrow

“Blaine Harden has done what no one else thought to do in seven decades: He’s brought us the full, secret, astonishing story of one of the most improbably powerful characters in American history, and he has done so with crystalline writing and in jaw-dropping detail.”
—Steve Twomey, author of Countdown to Pearl Harbor