Korean War: ‘Systematic and ruthless destruction’

Issue section: 


US Air Force attacking railroads in North Korea 1950

It is important that we remember the war that created the belligerent North Korean regime, writes John Newsinger, and that Britain's Labour government supported it at the time, though the public didn't.

The threat that Donald Trump made at the United Nations to “totally destroy” North Korea should not be dismissed, not least because in the early 1950s another US president, Harry Truman, actually did destroy North Korea. Moreover, the destruction of the country was carried out with the full support of the UN, indeed on behalf of the UN.

US aerial bombardment literally laid the country waste. This crime was perpetrated when there was a sensible moderate Democrat in the White House rather than a pathological right wing narcissist.

The North Korean regime is a brutal Stalinist dictatorship that has mutated over the years into some kind of grotesque hereditary absolute monarchy, but there can be little doubt that its drive to develop nuclear weapons is fuelled, at least in part, by the determination to ensure that the US never repeats the crimes that it committed in the early 1950s.

One does not have to turn to Communist propaganda to discover the scale of the slaughter that the US inflicted on North Korea. General Curtis LeMay later boasted of how the US Air Force had “burned down just about every city in North and South Korea…we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes”. One in nine of the population of North Korea were killed.

Not only were high explosives rained down on North Korea’s villages, towns and cities, but the new “wonder weapon” developed by Dow Chemicals, napalm, was freely used against civilian targets. In one raid on the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in July 1952, 2,300 gallons of napalm was dropped.

Indeed, according to one historian, an “ocean of napalm” was used to burn down the country’s mainly wood constructed urban areas, inflicting a terrible death on tens of thousands of women and children. Altogether over 32,000 tons of napalm was used during the Korean War. Even Churchill privately complained about the use of napalm, “this very cruel form of warfare”, against civilians, making it clear that “I will take no responsibility for it”.

The US also destroyed the country’s dams, deliberately flooding the countryside in order to disrupt communications, ruin harvests and create famine.

The US military favoured the use of nuclear weapons at the time with General Douglas MacArthur advocating dropping no less than 25 to seal the country off from China in March 1951. The US Air Force even carried out practice nuclear bomb raids over the country.

This seriously alarmed the Attlee government in Britain, not because of concern about the numbers of Koreans this would kill (Attlee had supported the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but for fear that it might provoke Russian retaliation. One of the great myths of the Attlee years is that his intervention played a role in preventing the use of nuclear weapons by the Americans, but this is so much nonsense. What he secured was an assurance that Britain would be informed if and when a decision was taken regarding their use.

One opponent of the war was the feminist and pacifist Monica Felton, a lifelong Labour Party member. She was a town planning expert and chair of the Stevenage Development Corporation. Felton visited North Korea as part of a delegation of the Women’s International Democratic Federation in April 1951. As she put it in the pamphlet she published on her return, What I Saw in Korea, as far as she was concerned her visit was intended to be “a service to the Labour Movement as a whole…following in some of the Labour Party’s finest traditions”.

She reported back absolutely truthfully that what she saw in North Korea was a country “being subject to a process of systematic and ruthless destruction in which there is no attempt to confine bombing to what are usually considered military objectives. Korea today is a ruin so absolute that no one can see it without getting the most clear and terrible warning of what a third world war would inevitably mean.”

The delegation visited the city of Sinyju and saw how it had been “virtually completely destroyed…entirely the result of American bombing”. The first great raid on 8 November 1950 destroyed 6,500 houses out of a total of 11,000, 16 of the 17 primary schools, 12 of the secondary schools and both hospitals. Some 5,000 people were killed, most of them women and children. While they were visiting the city it was attacked another three times.

When they arrived in Pyongyang they found the situation even worse: “destruction is virtually 100 percent”. Once again there were more raids while they were there, with the very ruins being bombed and machine gunned. As she put it, “These deeds have been done in our name.”

When she returned home the Attlee government sacked her from her job on a trumped up charge, had her expelled from the Labour Party and attempted to silence her with the threat of prosecution for treason with some Conservative MPs demanding that she be hanged.

The Korean War was not popular in Britain at the time and both the Attlee and Churchill governments were determined that people should be kept in ignorance of how it was being waged.