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.”