The firebombing of North Korea

If you were asked to name the most heavily bombed countries in history, which would you think of? Germany, probably. Maybe Vietnam. If you really know your stuff, you might mention Cambodia and Laos. North Korea probably wouldn’t be one of the first places to come to mind, despite the fact that it is the third-most bombed place on Earth

Western amnesia around North Korean suffering at the hands of US bombers likely stems from the fact that the conflict in which it took place is itself often reduced to a footnote in histories of the twentieth century. The Korean War is known as the forgotten war, sandwiched in the collective memory of the west somewhere between the more culturally significant conflicts of WWII and Vietnam.

For North Koreans, the war never really ended. Five million people lost their lives in the conflict and much of the country was utterly destroyed by US aircrews. The US bombing campaign continues to serve as the foundation for the widely publicised militarism, paranoia and hatred of the United States for which the isolated country is infamous for today. 

Civilians become collateral damage

During the first half of the twentieth century, the bombing of civilians morphed from unthinkable war crime to a norm of military combat. Aerial bombardment of civilian centres did occur during WWI, albeit on a very small scale. The world got its first taste of civilian bombing in the modern sense throughout the 1920s and 1930s in places including Iraq and Guernica. 

The practice remained controversial at the onset of WWII but prominent leaders including Winston Churchill – who had ordered the bombing of Iraq in the 1920s – became gradually convinced that the bombing of urban centres, and the likelihood of a high civilian death toll,  was a fact of modern war. Under the guise of Arthur Harris (aka Bomber Harris), Britain’s Royal Air Force led a series of bombing campaigns against European cities. American air crews went on to play a prominent role in these campaigns following their entry into the war. 

Cities including Hamburg and Dresden were virtually destroyed, with enormous loss of civilian life. These bombing raids were, and remain, controversial. Bomber Harris was branded “Butcher Harris” by his critics. For his detractors, Dresden was Harris’s biggest crime. His use of incendiary weapons, by which thousands of German civilians lost their lives, was heavily criticised. 

The bombing of Japan by the Allies was relatively minimal until 1944, as the Japanese mainland remained out of range for Allied aircraft. That changed when US forces captured the Marianas Island in June 1944, putting Japan within range of the new B-29 bombers.

By November 1944 the US Army Air Force Force, led by the impetuous General Curtis LeMay, was engaged in the strategic firebombing of Japanese urban centres. Fire was, again, the weapon of choice, aided by the incendiary gel substance Napalm – invented by Harvard chemists in 1942. Traditional wood-built Japanese houses served as tinder for enormous fire storms. In one raid in March 1945 – known as Operation Meetinghouse – up to 100,000 Japanese civilians are said to have died. More civilians died during Operation Meetinghouse than at Nagasaki or Dresden.

Tokyo before (left) and after (right) the firebombing raids of 1944.

LeMay is said to have remarked that: “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…” [ref] The justification for civilian bombing was, and remains, roughly the same: beat your enemy into submission in short high-casualty raids to avoid having to occupy a territory in a longer higher-casualty campaign.

This was a key justification for the bombing of Japan. The Allies had seen the determined Japanese defence of islands such as Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The defence of Japan itself would be even more determined, and tens of thousands, if not millions, of people would lose their lives if the Allies were to invade Japan like they had Germany. The role that bombing played in Japan’s unconditional surrender only served to legitimise the practise within Allied military circles. Elements of the public remained opposed, but civilian bombing was now a generally accepted part of war. 

The Korean situation

Japan’s surrender in 1945 led to the liberation of the Korean peninsula, which had been under Japanese control since 1910. The peninsula was occupied by the Americans in the south, and by the Soviets – who had swept through North-eastern China into Korea in a rapid August 1945 advance – in the north.

Failure to establish a Soviet-US trusteeship on the peninsula led to the establishment of two separate regimes on either side of the 38th parallel. One was a US-backed regime in Seoul, the other a Soviet-back communist regime out of Pyongyang, led by KIm-Il sung. China’s fall to communism in 1949 buoyed the North Koreans. Many Koreans fought for Mao and returned to the north with equipment and combat experience. Communist uprisings had also broken out in South Korea in 1948 and 1949. 

By 1950, Kim-Il sung was confident that his forces, with assurances from the Soviets and the Chinese, could bring the entire Korean peninsula under communist control. On the 25th of June his men crossed the 38th parallel. A US-led United Nations force was assembled to repel them. Strategic bombing was to be one of its key strategies. 

The firebombing of North Korea

US-led forces were on the backfoot in the early days of the war. LeMay, who was now head of Strategic Air Command, advocated for the use of nuclear bombs to bring the war to a swift end. Head of United Nations Command Douglas Macarthur was also in favour, as he confirmed to a reporter after the war:

Of all the campaigns in my life—20 major ones to be exact—the one I felt the most sure of was the one I was deprived of waging properly. I could have won the war in Korea in a maximum of 10 days, once the campaign was under way, and with considerably fewer casualties than were suffered during the so-called truce period. It would have altered the course of history. I would have dropped between 30 to 50 tactical atomic bombs on his air bases and other depots strung across the neck of Manchuria from just across the Yalu at Antung (northwest tip of Korea) to the neighborhood of Hunchun (northeast tip of Korea near the border of the USSR).” [ref]

Macarthur was removed from command in 1951. With nuclear bombing ruled out on moral grounds, policy shifted towards the apparently more acceptable means of conventional bombing. From June 1950, The United States Air Force (USAF) undertook a campaign of ‘precision bombing’, aimed at strategic targets such as railways and yards. Precision bombing was in itself a loose term, as bombing raids could be up to 99 percent inaccurate. Thousands of Korean citizens were killed during ‘precision’ bombing raids. 

By November, the ‘precision’ element of the raids became less apparent. Far East Air Force (FEAF) Commander George Stratemeyer sought permission from Macarthur to attack the city of Kanggye, to which Macarthur responded: “Burn it if you so desire. Not only that, Strat, but burn and destroy as a lesson any other of those towns that you consider of military value to the enemy.” [ref]

While Macarthur’s reference to ‘military value’ suggests some reluctance to pivot to all-out civilian bombing, he had effectively given the FEAF license to bomb any North Korean urban centre that was considered a viable target. Stratemeyer wrote in his diary that he interpreted Macarthur’s message as an instruction that: “Every installation, facility and village in North Korea now becomes a viable target.” [ref]

On the 5th of November 1950, 22 USAF B-29s attacked Kanggye. 75 percent of the city was destroyed. The destruction was justified within US dispatches by an apparent military build-up in the city. Stratemeyer said: “The entire city of Kanggye was [a] virtual arsenal and tremendously important communications center, hence [the] decision to employ incendiaries for [the] first time in Korea.” [ref]

An American bomb lands on a factory in North Korea, 1951

Throughout the Korean War, loosely defined military targets would continually be used as a guise for attacking densely populated urban centres. Commanders were careful not to reference the bombing of civilians in any official correspondence. In the collection of essays Bombing Civilians after World War II: The persistence of norms against targeting civilians in the Korean War, Sahr Conway-Lanz says: “The historical evidence that has come to light does not suggest that the UN commanders were thinking about killing civilians.” [ref]

It is however hard to believe that UN Command would have been ignorant of the civilian death that was sure to be brought about by its policies. Macarthur had effectively allowed for entire cities to be designated military installations viable for targeting. The likely extent of civilian death was known to UN Command, and it was accepted.

Three days after the bombing of Kanggye, the FEAF dropped 500 tonnes of incendiary bombs on Sinuiju, destroying 60 percent of the city. More towns across North Korea were attacked and destroyed throughout November. 95 percent of Manpojin was destroyed, 90 percent of Hoeryong, 90 percent of Namsi, 85 percent of Chosan, 90 percent of Koindong, and 75 percent of Sakchu. In late December, North Korea’s four largest cities, Pyongyang, Wonsan, Hamhung and Hungnam were attacked without warning.

Many of these attacks involved the use of Napalm, which had been highly effective in reducing much of Japan to a smouldering heap during WWII. Winston Churchill was critical of its use in Korea, accusing the US of ‘splashing it all over the civilian population’ and equating its use to torture. [ref] The US targeted several of North Korea’s major dams in 1953. The Toksan, Chasan, Kuwonga, Namsi and Taechon dams were bombed, resulting in severe flooding. The Soviet Union and China had to provide emergency assistance to prevent widespread famine. 

USAF assessments estimate that 18 of North Korea’s 22 major cities had been at least half-destroyed by the end of the war. 635,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on North Korea during the Korean War. 160,000 tonnes had been dropped on Japan during WWII. Estimates of the number of North Koreans who died during the conflict range from 12 to 15 percent.

Conway-Lanz writes that: “The stunning contradictions between lethal consequences and proclaimed scrupulousness were eased by the elastic definitions of military targets.” [ref] The depiction of civilians as collateral damage in targeted military attacks allowed UN Command to justify their actions in Korea. These justifications meant little to the North Korean survivors who had watched American bombs destroy their cities and kill their friends and families.

The North Korean psyche

Modern North Korean society is built upon the premise that the country needs to be able to defend itself militarily from the United States. North Korea maintains, at great expense, the fifth largest military by personnel in the world; behind only China, India, the United States, and Russia. 

Since the war ended, the government in Pyongyang has continued to invest heavily in anti-aircraft defence, the military and its nuclear weapons programme. Its weapons programme makes it an international pariah, and military investment comes at the expense of North Korean infrastructure, which remains heavily underfunded and underdeveloped. According to the OECD, North Korean GDP is lower now than it was in 1990.

These are deemed necessary sacrifices by a government and a society that is sure of the need to be able to defend itself from a US-led attack – a belief firmly rooted in the horrors of the Korean War. As Columbia University historian Charles K. Armstrong writes: “The war against the United States, more than any other single factor, gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of outside threats that would continue long after the war’s end.” [ref]

So, the next time you’re watching one of the countless documentaries about the isolated, paranoid world of North Korea, take a minute to remember where that paranoia stems from. 

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