The shadow of the Korean War

Photo via The Intercept

We Americans remember and memorialize the Vietnam Conflict, and tend to forget the equally savage and lethal Korean Conflict.   I’m not sure why that is—maybe because the Vietnam fighting was stretched out over more years, maybe because Vietnam was the experience of the Baby Boom generation.

Be that as it may, the Korean War is not forgotten in Korea, and especially not in North Korea.   The North Koreans remember that they have endured the worst the United States and its allies could throw at them, short of attacks with nuclear weapons.   I think that if you remember this, it goes a long way to explaining why Kim Jong-un defies the United States.

For the record, it was the North Koreans, and not the Americans or their South Korean allies, who started the war in June 1950, when they crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the south. Nevertheless, “What hardly any Americans know or remember,” University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings writes in his book The Korean War: A History, “is that we carpet-bombed the north for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties.”

How many Americans, for example, are aware of the fact that U.S. planes dropped on the Korean peninsula more bombs — 635,000 tons — and napalm — 32,557 tons — than during the entire Pacific campaign against the Japanese during World War II?

How many Americans know that “over a period of three years or so,” to quote Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, “we killed off … 20 percent of the population”?

Twenty.  Percent.  For a point of comparison, the Nazis exterminated 20 percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population. According to LeMay, “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea.”

Every. Town.  More than 3 million civilians are believed to have been killed in the fighting, the vast majority of them in the north.

Source: The Intercept.

The total population of Korea in 1950 was slightly over 20 million, with 9 million in North Korea.

According to DPRK figures, the war destroyed some 8,700 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals and 600,000 homes.   Most of the destruction occurred in 1950 and 1951. 

To escape the bombing, entire factories were moved underground, along with schools, hospitals, government offices, and much of the population.  Agriculture was devastated, and famine loomed. Peasants hid underground during the day and came out to farm at night.

Destruction of livestock, shortages of seed, farm tools, and fertilizer, and loss of manpower reduced agricultural production to the level of bare subsistence at best.   The Nodong Sinmun newspaper referred to 1951 as “the year of unbearable trials,” a phrase revived in the famine years of the 1990s.

Worse was yet to come.  By the fall of 1952, there were no effective targets left for US planes to hit. Every significant town, city and industrial area in North Korea had already been bombed

In the spring of 1953, the Air Force targeted irrigation dams on the Yalu River, both to destroy the North Korean rice crop and to pressure the Chinese, who would have to supply more food aid to the North. 

Five reservoirs were hit, flooding thousands of acres of farmland, inundating whole towns and laying waste to the essential food source for millions of North Koreans.  Only emergency assistance from China, the USSR, and other socialist countries prevented widespread famine.

Source: The Asia-Pacific Journal

How many Americans are familiar with the statements of Secretary of State Dean Rusk or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas?  Rusk, who was a State Department official in charge of Far Eastern affairs during the Korean War, would later admit that the United States bombed “every brick that was standing on top of another, everything that moved.”  American pilots, he noted, “were just bombing the heck out of North Korea

Douglas visited Korea in the summer of 1952 and was stunned by the “misery, disease, pain and suffering, starvation” that had been “compounded” by air strikes. U.S. warplanes, having run out of military targets, had bombed farms, dams, factories, and hospitals.“

I had seen the war-battered cities of Europe,” the Supreme Court justice confessed, “but I had not seen devastation until I had seen Korea.”

Source: The Intercept.

You can make the argument that all this was justified to defend South Korea and make it possible for South Korea to become the free and prosperous nation that it is today.   Without the U.S. use of air power, North Korea probably would have conquered the South and, once air power is unleashed, there is no clear line to say, “thus far and no further.”   You could make that argument.

I’m making a different point.  It is that the North Koreans are tough.  So, for that matter, are the South Koreans.   Given what they’ve been through, I don’t think they will give in to threats.   And now they have the means to strike back.   They can’t be attacked with impunity.


The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950-1960, by Charles K. Armstrong for Asia-Pacific Journal.

Why Do North Koreans Hate Us?  One Reason—They Remember the Korean War  by Mehdi Hasan for The Intercept.

How to Deal With North Korea by Mark Bowden for The Atlantic  [Added 9/12/2017].   A good article, which recommends dialing down hostilities with North Korea on pragmatic grounds.   However, the writer takes for granted that it is morally acceptable for the U.S. government to attack a foreign nation or to assassinate its rulers simply because that nation represents a potential threat.   (Hat tip to A Paradoxical Millennial).

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One Response to “The shadow of the Korean War”

  1. A Paradoxical Millennial Says:

    A nice piece. You may be interested in the following podcast, created a few months ago – it certainly makes for some very worrisome listening:


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