The North Koreans Haven’t Forgotten
Americans have forgotten what we did to North Korea
Perhaps no country on Earth is more misunderstood by Americans than North Korea. Though the country’s leaders are typically portrayed as buffoonish, even silly, in fact they are deadly serious in their cruelty and skill at retaining power. Though the country is seen as Soviet-style communist, in fact it is better understood as a holdover of Japanese fascism.
And there is another misconception, one that Americans might not want to hear but that is important for understanding the hermit kingdom: Yes, much of its anti-Americanism is cynically manufactured as a propaganda tool, and yes, it is often based on lies. But no, it is not all lies. The US did in fact do something terrible, even evil to North Korea, and while that act does not explain, much less forgive, North Korea’s many abuses since, it is not totally irrelevant either.
That act was this: In the early 1950s, during the Korean War, the US dropped more bombs on North Korea than it had dropped in the entire Pacific theater during World War II. This carpet bombing, which included 32,000 tons of napalm, often deliberately targeted civilian as well as military targets, devastating the country far beyond what was necessary to fight the war. Whole cities were destroyed, with many thousands of innocent civilians killed and many more left homeless and hungry.
For Americans, the journalist Blaine Harden has written, this bombing was “perhaps the most forgotten part of a forgotten war,” even though it was almost certainly “a major war crime.” Yet it shows that North Korea’s hatred of America “is not all manufactured,” he wrote. “It is rooted in a fact-based narrative, one that North Korea obsessively remembers and the United States blithely forgets.”
And the US, as Harden recounted in a column earlier this year, knew exactly what it was doing:
“Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population,” Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984. Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops.
Historians dispute just how important this bombing really was in making North Korea the country that it is today; some say it was formative in shaping the young nation’s history, others that North Korea was already on its way to becoming the hermit kingdom and that its leaders merely exploited the bombing to get there.
As the North Korea scholar B. R. Myers points out in The Cleanest Race, perhaps the definitive study of the North Korean worldview, anti-American propaganda was already in full swing before the bombing began. Since then, it has not focused as much on the American bombing (which Myers, like most scholars, considers a war crime) as you might expect:
As might be expected, the Korean War occupies a central place in anti-American propaganda, but the [propaganda] dwells less on the US Air Force’s extensive bombing campaign (which is hard to reconcile with the myth of the protective leader) than on village massacres and other isolated outrages.
Yet even if the bombing did not cause North Korea’s obsessive hatred of America and Americans, it did help to focus it. The effects of the bombing were felt nearly universally, the suffering it caused among the first shared experiences for North Koreans. Unlike the propaganda, which only recounted supposed American crimes, here was a real American crime that everyone could see for themselves, and indeed had likely affected them personally. How could it not be formative?
Please go to Vox to read the entire article.