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The Excellent 'King of Spies' Is a Timely Tale of US-Korea Relations, Personal and Political

Donald Nichols, the man at the center of Harden's important work, was skilled at what he did, often brazen in the ways he did it, and prone to a set of morally deficient behaviors that got him into considerable trouble.

King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America's Spymaster in Korea
Blaine Harden


Oct 2017


If you conjure up an image of your ideal-looking spy -- someone who's gone to an elite school, say, or someone who can effortlessly converse in any number of languages -- few of the traits are likely to fit the man you meet in Blaine Harden's intriguing and carefully researched book, King of Spies.

Harden is a seasoned journalist who has written extensively on Korea, including in his bestselling non-fiction book, Escape from Camp 14 (Penguin, 2012). That book, which tells the rare phenomenon of someone escaping a prison camp in North Korea, carries with it a call to better understand a country that both scares and baffles. King of Spies makes that plea as well: and does so, in part, by drawing out the many ambiguities and missteps contained in the rise and fall of Donald Nichols -- the man who went "from South Florida ragamuffin to King of Spies".

It was an unlikely transformation. As it played out, both before and throughout the Korean War, it showcased the ingenuity and sometimes depraved determination of Nichols. It also highlighted the ineptitude of US military leaders to anticipate the war -- and, once underway, to manage it with much effectiveness or sensibility.

Nichols, the future spy extraordinaire, was born in 1923, into what Harden describes as an "operatically dysfunctional family". His mother, before leaving Nichols's father, sexually entertained men in the living room while the young Nichols was present. The family had no money, and solid emotional support from either parent was almost non-existent. As for education, Nichols went no higher than the 7th grade. In 1940, at just 17-years-old, he joined the army.

It was an unconventional start for someone who would come to be known inside North Korea as "the King of U.S. spies". But Nichols, who stood six feet two inches, regularly weighed around 250 pounds, and binged on Coke and Butterfinger candybars, did not let his less-than-ideal upbringing keep him from making the most of his circumstances.

After performing various low-status jobs in World War II, Nichols took advantage of a three-month intelligence program in Tokyo, which was "as close as he ever came to higher education". He then shipped to Korea, in 1946. At the time the region was perceived as a "hellhole"; in the minds of servicemen it was a thoroughly undesirable place to be stationed. But as it turned out, it was there in detested Korea that Nichols came to form the relationship which would set his spy career in motion: a close friendship with soon-to-be president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee.

Harden describes how Rhee had spent most of his life in the US, including as a student at some of the nation's most prestigious institutions. Rhee spoke English fluently and was confident in interacting with Americans. Harden surmises that this may have contributed to Rhee's willingness to befriend the considerably younger American when they met sometime in 1946. A belief that Nichols could help fulfill "the president's hunger for American military hardware", as Harden writes, might also have been a strong factor.

Ultimately, we have few details about how the friendship began. But once underway, Nichols gained an "inside-the-palace cachet". It was a leverage he would use with great effectiveness for virtually his entire career.

At first, however, Nichols's closeness to Rhee and the valuable intel he gained -- including that the Soviet-backed North was planning an attack on the South -- was either ignored or suppressed by leaders in the US military. The bigwig at the time, General MacArthur, didn't want to hear it.

During this same time, South Korea was undergoing a brutal civil war, with Rhee responsible for killing thousands of suspected Communists. It was a volatile and bloody situation. But it was in this environment of chaos, Harden writes, that Nichols "smelled opportunity". He began to cement himself as a formidable player in the world of espionage. In many ways, he acted like a zealous entrepreneur: constantly learning, gathering people around him (he would eventually come to have his own spy unit, with hundreds of Korean and American agents under his command), and providing them with the skills necessary to be effective.

All of this allowed Nichols to carry out actions during the war which saved many lives. He helped recover pieces of a downed Soviet plane which could then be analyzed for vulnerabilities; he organized a team of codebreakers whose work proved essential in holding the Pusan Perimeter; and through his unique relationship to Rhee he obtained intelligence which the US might otherwise not have had.

Those were the good things. In that same time frame he also "attended mass executions" and "torture sessions", sexually took advantage of young Korean men, used excessive violence, and recklessly sent Koreans to their death on all but certain suicidal ops.

The perverse sexual proclivities of Nichols, which he continued once back in the US (including in an encounter with a 12-year-old boy) would get him into serious trouble. But during the war Nichols's actions, sexual or otherwise, spawned little (if any) concern among higher-ups. It wasn't until four years after the war, but while Nichols was still operating in South Korea, that the hammer finally came down. The indispensable spy had become dispensable.

Exactly why this happened is left in part to guess work. "No documentary evidence of State Department or CIA involvement in Nichols's dismissal has surfaced," Harden tells us. What information we do have is rather opaque. But Harden conjectures that at least one reason may have been the deteriorating relationship between the US and Rhee (and thus Nichols's intimate relationship to the latter becoming too much of a potential liability). Whatever the case, Nichols was involuntarily sent to a psychiatric hospital in Japan, then another back home in the US, in Florida. Once released, his life was predominantly a decline filled with inappropriate sexual liaisons and rather odd behavior. He died in 1992.

While parts of Nichols's downfall may be shrouded in unknowables, many things about his story are clear. He amassed an array of high-level connections while receiving next to no supervision for how those connections should be used. He was a young man -- at war's end he was just 30 -- who found himself with unprecedented authority and the freedom to execute highly questionable operations.

But like most morally reprehensible acts, Nichols's behaviors did not occur in isolation. One of the strengths of Harden's book is that it tells not just the story of a sometimes ruthless spy, but of the context -- both during and after -- in which that story played out. There is a striking picture which shows throughout Harden's finely crafted narrative: the uneducated, minimally trained, free to do as he pleased spy rapidly climbing the ranks, all during the course of what would come to be known as "the Forgotten War".

Neither the US military nor the American public gave the kind of attention to the Korean War which it deserved -- and still deserves. Lack of accountability and poor judgment were widespread. Now, over half a century later, many Americans are still unaware of the excessive -- and horrific -- degree to which the US used bombs and napalm to demolish city after city in North Korea, killing untold numbers of innocent civilians.

It's a somber thought, but the kind of thing Harden brings to our attention in the King of Spies. It's partly for this reason that the book is not only engaging, but timely. The continued intelligence problems we face in North Korea, combined with most Americans' lack of nuanced understanding for why North Koreans view the US as they do, demonstrate clearly that the Korean War has lessons still to teach. Harden, in the process of giving us a thoroughly researched account of a heretofore unheard of spy, might just help push us closer to finally learning those lessons.


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