A living nightmare that haunts the country to this day
Fall Quarterly 2017
By Bruce Cumings
As they always do on the anniversary of the armistice, North Koreans celebrated their “victory” in the Korean War on 27 July. A few days later, President Donald Trump remarked that if the North Koreans made any more threats, they “will be met with fire and fury, and frankly, power the likes of which the world has never seen.”
No US president has uttered words like this since Harry Truman warned the Japanese, between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, either to surrender or face “a rain of ruin from the air, the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.” Trump’s nuclear bluster, made off-the-cuff between golf rounds, was widely condemned, but a few days later he doubled down on it.
As a White House staffer told the New York Times, the president “believes he has a better feel for Mr. Kim [Jong Un] than his advisers do. He thinks of Mr. Kim as someone pushing people around, and Mr. Trump thinks he needs to show that he cannot be pushed.”
Trump is surrounded by people who echo his fantasies of ultimate power. Sebastian Gorka, a strange figure advising Trump—said to be a Trump “favorite” and a dead ringer for a Bela Lugosi flunky in a Dracula movie—told Fox News that Trump’s “fire and fury” line meant “don’t test America and don’t test Donald J. Trump.”
We are not just a superpower, Gorka said, “we are now a hyper-power. Nobody in the world, especially not North Korea, comes close to challenging our military capabilities.” This has been a truism since the Soviet Union collapsed, but it doesn’t explain how the US has failed to win four of the five major wars it has fought since 1945. One of those wars was in Korea, where rough peasant armies, North Korean and Chinese, fought the US to a standstill.
It was 64 years ago that North Koreans emerged from this war into a living nightmare, after three years of “rain and ruin” by the US Air Force. Pyongyang had been razed, with the Air Force stating in official documents that the North’s cities suffered greater damage than German and Japanese cities firebombed during World War II.
Just as the Japan scholar Richard Minear termed Truman’s atomic attacks “exterminationist,” the great French writer and film-maker Chris Marker wrote after a visit to the North in 1957: “Extermination crossed this land.” It was an indelible experience still drilled into the heads of every North Korean.
On my first visit to Pyongyang in 1981, a guide quickly brought up the bombing and said it had killed several of his family members. Wall posters depicted a wizened old woman in the midst of the bombing, declaring “American imperialists—wolves.”
The day after Trump’s bluster, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] stated: “The US once waged a tragic war that plunged this land into a sea of blood and fire, and has been leaving no stone unturned to obliterate the DPRK’s ideology and system century after century.”
There are 25 million human beings living in North Korea. They bleed like we do, they live and die like we do, they love their kin like we do. Trump’s callous and cavalier threat was perhaps the most irresponsible thing he has said since becoming president—which is really saying something—but most Americans will not know this because they know nothing about the carpet-bombing of North Korea.
What about the 50 million South Koreans, whose elders also suffered through this war? “Trump doesn’t seem to understand what an alliance is, and doesn’t seem to consider his ally when he says those things,” Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at an institute in Seoul, told the New York Times.
“No American president has mentioned a military option so easily, so offhandedly as he has.” But here Trump has a precedent: Bill Clinton also didn’t bother to consult the former South Korean president Kim Young Sam when drawing up plans for a pre-emptive strike in June 1994.
The next few weeks are critical to this deepening crisis, with annual “Ulchi-Freedom Guardian” war games set to start up on August 21, involving tens of thousands of US and South Korean troops.
North Korean generals have been preparing for moments like this for decades, gaming out war scenarios during several crises going back to January 1968 when they seized the US spy ship Pueblo and held the crew for 11 months.
Thus the North’s statements in the current crisis (unlike Trump’s) have a concrete, predictable nature: lots of bluster and bombast combined with quite specific plans, namely four medium-range missiles to be launched into waters near Guam on 15 August, if Kim Jong Un gives the go ahead.
Pyongyang always pursues tit-for-tat strategies: the US lifts B1-B nuclear-capable bombers from Guam for flyovers of South Korea—a constant not just under Trump but also during Obama’s tenure—and the North chooses a scenario that will call attention to the nuclear blackmail that the US has pursued going back to the Korean war, and particularly during the decades from 1958 to 1990, when the US stationed hundreds of nukes in South Korea with standard plans to use them in the early stages of a North Korean invasion. Pyongyang also likes to choose dates that have historical resonance: 15 August is the anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonialism in 1945.
Upon the news of his wife’s death, Shakespeare’s Macbeth said, “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” He famously added: “signifying nothing”. Trump signified this: yet another American venture in extermination.
— Professor Bruce Cumings is chair of the History Department at the University of Chicago and the author, most recently, of The Korean War: a History, Random House Modern Library, 2010. He wrote this commentary for The Guardian, August 13, 2017
Fall Quarterly 2017
By John LaForge
“We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another… Over a period of three years or so, we killed off, what, 20 percent of the population?” — General Curtis LeMay, in “Strategic Air Warfare,” by Richard H. Kohn
The US public wants to know why North Korea is so paranoid, militarily hostile and boastful—and why its leaders in Pyongyang point their fingers at the United States every time they test another rocket or bomb. Sixty five years ago, according to US Air Force General Curtis LeMay, “We burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea, too.” Today, the Pentagon is simultaneously bombing or rocketing seven different non-nuclear countries. On August 21, just as it does twice a year, some 17,500 US military personnel, with thousands of South Korean troops launched massive joint war games off the North’s coast, exercises that rehearse an invasion of the North where the two historical bookmarks cannot be considered separately.
The US regularly tests long-range ballistic nuclear missiles from Vandenberg Air Base, weapons that can obliterate the capital Pyongyang. On Aug. 31, the US flew two nuclear-capable B1 bombers near the demilitarized zone, accompanied by South Korea fighter jet bombers. Presidential administrations have routinely called North Korea “evil,” and a “state sponsor of terrorism.” US military officials call the tiny country a principle threat to US security. In 2002, according to Korean Policy Institute fellow Hyun Lee writing in the Summer 2017 Korean Quarterly, President G.W. Bush listed North Korea with seven countries that are potential targets of a pre-emptive US nuclear attack.
Yet it’s North Korea’s mostly failing rocket tests that are called “provocative” and “destabilizing” by the State Dept., the Council on Foreign Relations and the White House, regardless of which party is in power. In 1994, Bill Clinton said, “If North Korea ever used a nuclear weapon, it would no longer continue to exist.” In April 2016, Barack Obama, speaking to CBS News, called the North’s President Kim Jong-un “erratic” and “irresponsible”—and went on to warn, “We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals.” Likewise, the current Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis made an openly genocidal threat on August 8, saying the North must stop any action that would “lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” Reuters reported. Pyongyang must wonder how to call off the dogs: It has said it will stop testing its nuclear weapons and missiles if the US halts its military exercises. In May 2016, it declared a “no first use” policy, pledging not to use nuclear weapons without first being attacked with them. In 1993, Lee reports, after the collapse of the USSR, the Pentagon under Bill Clinton, “announced that it was targeting some of its strategic nuclear weapons away from the former Soviet Union to North Korea.”
The literal mass destruction of North Korea and today’s threats of more should be considered in the context of the living memory of the older generation. Robert Neer’s 2013 book Napalm (Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press), reports that Gen. LeMay, head of 21st Bomber Command, wrote, “We killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes…” Eighth Army chemical officer Donald Bode reportedly said, on an “average good day” pilots in the Korean War “dropped 70,000 gallons of napalm: 45,000 from the US Air Force, 10,000-20,000 by its Navy, and 4,000-5,000 by Marines”—who nicknamed the burning jellied gasoline “cooking oil.”
Neer reports that more bombs were dropped on Korea than in the whole of the Pacific theater during World War II—635,000 tons, versus 503,000 tons. “Pyongyang, a city of half a million people before 1950, was said to have had only two buildings left intact,” according to Neer.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States says, “Perhaps 2 million Koreans, North and South, were killed in the Korean war, all in the name of opposing ‘the rule of force.’” Bruce Coming’s history The Korean War, says, “of more than 4 million casualties … at least 2 million were civilians. … Estimated North Korean casualties numbered 2 million including about 1 million civilians… An estimated 900,000 Chinese soldiers lost their lives in combat.”
An insider’s overview, according to Neer in Napalm, comes from Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In May 1951, the former supreme commander testified to Congress, “The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20 million people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children … I vomited.”
Donald Trump denounced North Korea and its president Kim Jong-un as “depraved” before the United Nations Sept. 19, saying the nation “threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of life.” Of course North Korea can barely feed itself, and yet has to defend itself against an onslaught of Western hostility, UN sanctions, and ongoing US/South Korean war games which are rehearsals for an invasion of the North. It tests rockets and bombs to be sure, just as the US and its allies and adversaries do all year round. It’s big business.
Trump’s claim that North Korea is threatening is preposterous since it has no deliverable nuclear weapons at all. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said last week that North Korea is no danger to the United States. In June 2016, the Institute for Science and International Security reported that Pyongyang may have between 13 and 21 warheads. The CIA, whose job it is find hostile weapons (even where they don’t exist) says Pyongyang has at most about 21. US intelligence agencies’ combined estimates are that while it may have miniaturized a nuclear warhead, North Korea has no missile that can drop them on the United States. The Federation of American Scientists is more skeptical and estimates it has “potentially produce[d] 10-20 nuclear warheads.”
Like an 8th grade imbecile contradicting himself repeatedly, Trump claimed that North Korean President Kim Jong-un “is on a suicide mission.” In April 2016 Trump had called him a “smart cookie.” Kim appears quite the opposite of suicidal since Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs are aimed at preventing a repeat of the Korean War in which, according to US Air Force General Curtis LeMay, “we burned down every town in North Korea.”
Trump asserted that, “[I]f the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Here is Trump in a nutshell: Condemning threats of “unthinkable loss of life” in one sentence, then making precisely the same threat in the next. Perhaps Trump knows nothing about the Korean War, but the idea that the United States might “have no choice” but to totally destroy an entire country is not just a deliberate lie and an outrage, it is intended to prepare the population to get comfortable with bloodlust and atrocities, and intended to teach children to embrace them as well.
Governments always have a choice about whether to begin bombing, and since North Korea has done absolutely nothing against the United States or its allies, Trump’s hate-filled spittle about total war is all the more monstrous. Delivered before the world’s largest peace group, Trump’s ghastly threat was a barbaric embrace of genocidal violence.
Trump must have for a moment believed that to “totally destroy North Korea” is a “thinkable loss of life,” as opposed to the “unthinkable” sort that he condemned. But if he did, — a big “if,” since Trump seems not to think that words have meaning, — then it is Trump himself who is depraved. He must be ostracized, stigmatized and shamed into resigning so his Administration of Hate can be replaced.
The United States’ destruction of North Korea from 1950 to ‘53, and today’s threats of more should, be considered in the context of the living memory of its older generation. Robert Neer’s 2013 book “Napalm” (Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press), reports that Gen. LeMay, head of 21st Bomber Command, wrote, “We killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes…” Neer reports that more bombs were dropped on Korea than in the whole of the Pacific theater during World War II — 635,000 tons, versus 503,000 tons. “Pyongyang, a city of half a million people before 1950, was said to have had only two buildings left intact,” according to “Napalm.”
Howard Zinn’s groundbreaking “People’s History of the United States” says, “Perhaps 2 million Koreans, North and South, were killed in the Korean war, all in the name of opposing ‘the rule of force.’” Bruce Cuming’s history “The Korean War” (Modern Library, 2010) says, “[O]f more than 4 million casualties … at least 2 million were civilians. … Estimated North Korean casualties numbered 2 million including about 1 million civilians… An estimated 900,000 Chinese soldiers lost their lives in combat.”
According to Neer in “Napalm,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur testified to Congress in May 1951: “The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20 million people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children … I vomited.”
Trump used the word “sovereignty” 21 times in his speech. The United States is devoted so convincingly to national sovereignty that it has maintained military occupations and shooting wars inside Afghanistan and Iraq for a combined total of 30 years and counting, and is simultaneously making war on five other sovereign states in the region. Add to the historical list of the attacked: Yugoslavia, Serbia, Iran, Bosnia, Somalia, Kuwait, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Lebanon, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Peru, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Guatemala, and of course Korea. Not a single UN delegate was aware of the president’s deceit or hypocrisy, which explains the roaring applause in the General Assembly during Trumps bomb threats.
Editor’s Note: In the context of a broader discussion, M.I.T. Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky, speaking in April in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was asked by Democracy Now news anchor Amy Goodman: “Do you think there is a possibility that the US would attack North Korea?” Chomsky’s answer is instructive in view of the ongoing US/South Korean wargames off the Korean coast which now involve two US aircraft carrier battle groups.
Noam Chomsky: I doubt it very much. The reason is very simple.
An attack on North Korea would unleash … a massive artillery bombardment of Seoul, the biggest city in South Korea and right near the border, which would wipe it out including plenty of American troops. As far as I can see, there is no defense against that.
Furthermore, North Korea could retaliate against American bases in the region where there are plenty of US soldiers. They’d be devastated; North Korea would be finished; so would much of the region. But if attacked, presumably they would respond, very likely. In fact the responses might be automatic. [National Security Advisor, General Herbert Raymond] McMaster at least, and [Secretary of Defense, General James] Mattis understand this. How much influence they have, we don’t know. So I think an attack is unlikely.
But the real question is: Is there a way of dealing with the problem? There are a lot of proposals. Sanctions. A big new missile defense system—which is a major threat to China and will increase tensions there. Military threats of various kinds. Sending an aircraft carrier, the [USS Carl] Vinson to North Korea…. Those are the kind of proposals as to how to solve it.
Actually there’s one proposal that’s ignored. It’s a pretty simple proposal. Remember: the goal is to get North Korea to freeze its weapons and missiles systems.
So, one proposal is to accept their offer to do that. It sounds simple. They have made a proposal—China and North Korea—have proposed to freeze the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons systems and the US instantly rejected it. And you can’t blame that on Trump. Obama did the same thing. A couple of years ago the same offer was presented, I think it was 2015, the Obama administration instantly rejected it.
And the reason is that it calls for a quid pro quo. It says in return the US should put an end to threatening military maneuvers on North Korea’s borders, which happen to include, under Trump, sending of nuclear-capable B52s [and B1 and B2 bombers] flying right near the border.
Maybe Americans don’t remember very well, but North Koreans have a memory of, not too long ago, when North Korea was absolutely flattened, literally, by American bombing. There were literally no targets left.
I really urge people who haven’t done it to read the official American military histories, the Air Quarterly Review, the military histories describing this. They describe it very vividly and accurately. They say there just weren’t any targets left. So what could we do? Well, we decided to attack the dams, the huge dams—a major war crime. People were hanged for it at Nuremberg, but put that aside. And then comes an ecstatic, gleeful description of the bombing of the dams and the huge flow of water which was wiping out valleys and destroying the rice crop, “upon which Asians depend for survival”—lots of racist comments—but all with exaltation and glee. You really have to read it to appreciate it. The North Koreans don’t have to bother reading it. They lived it.
So when nuclear-capable B52s [etc.] are flying on their border, along with other threatening military maneuvers, they’re kind of upset about it. Strange people. And they continue to develop what they see as a potential deterrent that might protect the regime, and the country in fact, from destruction. …