State of Fear: How History’s Deadliest Bombing Campaign Created Today’s Crisis in Korea


Napalm bombing of village near Hanchon, North Korea, 10 May 1951. Use of napalm on villages later became infamous in Vietnam, but much more was dumped on North Korea.

As the world watches with mounting concern the growing tensions and bellicose rhetoric between the United States and North Korea, one of the most remarkable aspects of the situation is the absence of any public acknowledgement of the underlying reason for North Korean fears—or, as termed by United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, “state of paranoia”—namely, the horrific firebombing campaign waged by the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and the unprecedented death toll that resulted from that bombing.

Although the full facts will never be known, the available evidence points toward the conclusion that the firebombing of North Korea’s cities, towns, and villages produced more civilian deaths than any other bombing campaign in history.

Historian Bruce Cumings describes the bombing campaign as “probably one of the worst episodes of unrestrained American violence against another people, but it’s certainly the one that the fewest Americans know about.”

The campaign, carried out from 1950 to 1953, killed 2 million North Koreans, according to General Curtis LeMay, the head of the Strategic Air Command and the organizer of the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities. In 1984, LeMay told the Office of Air Force History that the bombing of North Korea had “killed off 20 percent of the population.” [In today's terms, if a superpower did that to the US, we'd have close to 40 million people killed—can you wrap your minds around that horrendous fact Americans?—Eds.]

Other sources cite a somewhat lower number. According to a data setdeveloped by researchers at the Centre for the Study of Civil War (CSCW) and the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), the “best estimate” of civilian deaths in North Korea is 995,000, with a low estimate of 645,000 and a high estimate of 1.5 million.

Though half of LeMay’s estimate, the CSCW/PRIO estimate of 995,000 deaths still exceeds the civilian death tolls of any other bombing campaign, including the Allied firebombing of German cities in World War II, which claimed an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 lives; the firebombing and nuclear bombing of Japanese cities, which caused an estimated 330,000 to 900,000 deaths; and the bombing of Indochina from 1964 to 1973, which caused an estimated 121,000 to 361,000 deaths overall during Operation Rolling ThunderOperation Linebacker, and Operation Linebacker II (Vietnam); Operation Menu and Operation Freedom Deal (Cambodia), and Operation Barrel Roll(Laos).

The heavy death toll from the bombing of North Korea is especially notable in view of the relatively modest population of the country: just 9.7 million people in 1950. By comparison, there were 65 million people in Germany and 72 million people in Japan at the end of World War II.

The attacks by the U.S. Air Force against North Korea used the firebombing tactics that had been developed in the World War II bombing of Europe and Japan: explosives to break up buildings, napalm, and other incendiaries to ignite massive fires, and strafing to prevent fire-fighting crews from extinguishing the blazes.

The US army and intel services.remain complicit in the organisation and supervision (not to mention approval) of numerous massacres of Koreans favoring unification with or sympathetic to the North. Some 1,800 South Korean leftists and other prisoners were massacred near Daejeon by the ROK police —a puppet force—over the space of three days in July 1950. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The use of these tactics was not a foregone conclusion. According to United States policies in effect at the onset of the Korean War, firebombing directed at civilian populations was forbidden. A year earlier, in 1949, a series of U.S. Navy admirals had condemned such tactics in testimony before Congressional hearings. During this “Revolt of the Admirals,” the Navy had taken issue with their Air Force colleagues, contending that attacks carried out against civilian populations were counterproductive from a military perspective and violated global moral norms.

Coming at a time when the Nuremberg tribunals had heightened public awareness of war crimes, the criticisms of the Navy admirals found a sympathetic ear in the court of public opinion. Consequently, attacking civilian populations was forbidden as a matter of U.S. policy at the beginning of the Korean War. When Air Force General George E. Stratemeyer requested permission to use the same firebombing methods on five North Korean cities that “brought Japan to its knees,” General Douglas MacArthur denied the request, citing “general policy.”

Five months into the war, with Chinese forces having intervened on the side of North Korea and UN forces in retreat, General MacArthur changed his position, agreeing to General Stratemeyer’s request on November 3, 1950, to burn the North Korean city of Kanggye and several other towns: “Burn it if you so desire. Not only that, Strat, but burn and destroy as a lesson to any other of those towns that you consider of military value to the enemy.” The same evening, MacArthur’s chief of staff told Stratemeyer that the firebombing of Sinuiju had also been approved. In his diary, Stratemeyer summarized the instructions as follows: “Every installation, facility, and village in North Korea now becomes a military and tactical target.” Stratemeyer sent orders to the Fifth Air Force and Bomber Command to “destroy every means of communications and every installation, factory, city, and village.”

While the Air Force was blunt in its own internal communications about the nature of the bombing campaign—including maps showing the exact percentage of each city that had been incinerated—communications to the press described the bombing campaign as one directed solely at “enemy troop concentrations, supply dumps, war plants, and communication lines.”

The orders given to the Fifth Air Force were more clear: “Aircraft under Fifth Air Force control will destroy all other targets including all buildings capable of affording shelter.”

Within less than three weeks of the initial assault on Kanggye, ten cities had been burned, including Ch’osan (85%), Hoeryong (90%), Huich’on (75%), Kanggye (75%), Kointong (90%), Manp’ochin (95%), Namsi (90%), Sakchu (75%), Sinuichu (60%), and Uichu (20%).

On November 17, 1950, General MacArthur told U.S. Ambassador to Korea John J. Muccio, “Unfortunately, this area will be left a desert.” By “this area” MacArthur meant the entire area between “our present positions and the border.”

As the Air Force continued burning cities, it kept careful track of the resulting levels of destruction:

* Anju – 15%
* Chinnampo (Namp’o)- 80%
* Chongju (Chŏngju) – 60%
* Haeju – 75%
* Hamhung (Hamhŭng) – 80%
* Hungnam (Hŭngnam) – 85%
* Hwangju (Hwangju County) – 97%
* Kanggye – 60% (reduced from previous estimate of 75%)
* Kunu-ri (Kunu-dong)- 100%
*Kyomipo (Songnim) – 80%
* Musan – 5%
* Najin (Rashin) – 5%
* Pyongyang – 75%
* Sariwon (Sariwŏn) – 95%
* Sinanju – 100%
* Sinuiju – 50%
* Songjin (Kimchaek) – 50%
* Sunan (Sunan-guyok) – 90%
* Unggi (Sonbong County) – 5%
* Wonsan (Wŏnsan)- 80%

In May 1951, an international fact-finding team stated, “The members, in the whole course of their journey, did not see one town that had not been destroyed, and there were very few undamaged villages.”

On June 25, 1951, General O’Donnell, commander of the Far Eastern Air Force Bomber Command, testified in answer to a question from Senator Stennis (“…North Korea has been virtually destroyed, hasn’t it?):

“Oh, yes; … I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean Peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name … Just before the Chinese came in we were grounded. There were no more targets in Korea.”

In August 1951, war correspondent Tibor Meray stated that he had witnessed “a complete devastation between the Yalu River and the capital.” He said that there were “no more cities in North Korea.” He added, “My impression was that I am traveling on the moon because there was only devastation…. [E]very city was a collection of chimneys.”

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]everal factors combined to intensify the deadliness of the firebombing attacks. As had been learned in World War II, incendiary attacks could devastate cities with incredible speed: the Royal Air Force’s firebombing attack on Würzburg, Germany, in the closing months of World War II had required only 20 minutes to envelop the city in a firestorm with temperatures estimated at 1500–2000°C.

Another factor contributing to the deadliness of attacks was the severity of North Korea’s winter. In Pyongyang, the average low temperature in January is 8° Fahrenheit. Since the most severe bombing took place in November 1950, those who escaped immediate death by fire were left at risk of death by exposure in the days and months that followed. Survivors created makeshift shelters in canyons, caves, or abandoned cellars. In May 1951 a visiting delegation to the bombed city of Sinuiju from the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) reported:

“The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants live in dug-outs made of earth supported from salvaged timber. Some of these dug-outs have roofs made of tiles and timber, salvaged from destroyed buildings. Others are living in cellars that remained after the bombardment and still others in thatched tents with the frame-work of destroyed buildings and in huts made of unmortared brick and rubble.”

In Pyongyang, the delegation described a family of five members, including a three-year-old child and an eight-month-old infant, living in an underground space measuring two square meters that could only be entered by crawling through a three-meter tunnel.

A third deadly factor was the extensive use of napalm. Developed at Harvard University in 1942, the sticky, flammable substance was first used in War War II. It became a key weapon during the Korean War, in which 32,557 tons were used, under a logic that historian Bruce Cumings characterized: “They are savages, so that gives us the right to shower napalm on innocents.” Long after the war, Cumings described an encounter with one aging survivor:

“On a street corner stood a man (I think it was a man or a woman with broad shoulders) who had a peculiar purple crust on every visible part of his skin—thick on his hands, thin on his arms, fully covering his entire head and face. He was bald, he had no ears or lips, and his eyes, lacking lids, were a grayish white, with no pupils…. [T]his purplish crust resulted from a drenching with napalm, after which the untreated victim’s body was left to somehow cure itself.”

During armistice talks at the conclusion of the fighting, U.S. commanders had run out of cities and towns to target. In order to place pressure on the negotiations, they now turned the bombers toward Korea’s major dams. As reported in New York Times, the flood from the destruction of one dam “scooped clean” twenty-seven miles of river valley and destroyed thousands of acres of newly planted rice.

In the wake of the firebombing campaigns against Germany and Japan during World War II, a Pentagon research group comprising 1,000 members carried out an exhaustive assessment known as the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. The USSBS released 208 volumes for Europe and 108 volumes for Japan and the Pacific, including casualty counts, interviews with survivors, and economic surveys. These industry-by-industry reports were so detailed that General Motors used the results to successfully sue the U.S. government for $32 million in damages to its German plants.

After the Korean War, no survey of the bombing was done other than the Air Force’s own internal maps showing city-by-city destruction. These maps were kept secret for the next twenty years. By the time the maps were quietly declassified in 1973, America’s interest in the Korean War had long since faded. Only in recent years has the full picture begun to emerge in studies by historians such as Taewoo Kim of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, Conrad Crane of the U.S. Military Academy, and Su-kyoung Hwang of the University of Pennsylvania.

In North Korea, the memory of [these brutal attacks] lives on. According to historian Bruce Cumings, “It was the first thing my guide brought up with me.” Cumings writes: “The unhindered machinery of incendiary bombing was visited on the North for three years, yielding a wasteland and a surviving mole people who had learned to love the shelter of caves, mountains, tunnels and redoubts, a subterranean world that became the basis for reconstructing a country and a memento for building a fierce hatred through the ranks of the population.”

To this day, the firebombing of North Korea’s cities, towns, and villages remains virtually unknown to the general public and unacknowledged in media discussions of the crisis, despite the obvious relevance to North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent. Yet without knowing and confronting these facts, the American public cannot begin to comprehend the fear that lies at the heart of North Korean attitudes and actions.

About the Author
ce is the Director of CoalSwarm. He is the founder of Peachpit Press and the author of Gangs of America and Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal.

Special addendum

By Patrice Greanville



Bogart apparently felt the change in the air pretty quickly. Some reports say he lashed out at his fellow committee members on the plane home, while other suggest that many members of the brigade booked their own flights home early, out of embarrassment. Certainly, the right wing press—and in this climate, virtually everything save for the Daily Worker was leaning right—started attacking the unfriendly witnesses and their supporters in real time. After Congress voted to indict the Hollywood Ten for contempt, Bogart, allowed a statement to be syndicated to Hearst papers under the headline, “As Bogart Sees It Now,” which read in part:

I am not a Communist sympathizer. … I went to Washington because I thought fellow Americans were being deprived of their Constitutional Rights, and for that that reason alone. That the trip was ill-advised, even foolish, I am very ready to admit. At the time it seemed the thing to do. I have absolutely no use for Communism nor for anyone who who serves that philosophy. I am an American. And very likely, like a good many of the rest of you, sometimes a foolish and impetuous American. (Bogie and the Blacklist,  Karina Longworth, Slate, March 4, 2016)

The above is eloquent. Bogie in his virtual recantation equates anti-communism with Americanism, one of the oldest and most fraudulent and cynical equations in the US capitalist propaganda canon. (See American Brainwash: Guess what, Ma, capitalism is not Americanness!).

I offer below a sampler of Korean War movies and television artifacts. I trust the material speaks for itself.




1953 Battle Circus

Bogie (inadvertently) inaugurates the MASH franchise

Keenan Wynn (left) with Bogart in surgical scrubs and Allyson, playjng nurse.

The film is set in Korea during the Korean War. Bogart plays a surgeon and commander of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) 8666 (shortened to “66” in the dialogue), with Allyson playing a newly arrived Army nurse (Lieutenant Ruth McGara). Despite their initial handicaps, their love flourishes against a background of war, enemy attacks, death and injury. At first, Ruth is a bumbling addition to the nurse corps, but attracts the attention of the unit’s hard-drinking, no-nonsense chief surgeon Dr. and Major Jed Webbe (Humphrey Bogart). Jed cautions that he wants a “no strings” relationship and Ruth is warned by the other nurses of his womanizing ways. She sees that he is beloved by the unit, especially the resourceful Sergeant Orvil Statt (Keenan Wynn). According to Richard Brooks (in an interview filmed for the 1988 Bacall on Bogart documentary), Battle Circus was originally called MASH 66, a title rejected by MGM because the studio thought people would not understand the connection to a military hospital. The title of the film actually refers to the speed and ease with which a MASH unit, with its assemblage of tents, and portable equipment, can, like a circus, pick up stakes and move to where the action is. The MASH theme, as we know, would re-emerge 20 years later as a television sitcom. Obviously this plot, totally Americanocentric and focused on personal storylines of interest chiefly to American audiences, had little to say about the reasons for the Korean war or our own lethal meddling in the peninsula. (Main source: Wikipedia)

1951 The Steel Helmet
War is tough

This melodrama by writer-director Sam Fuller (the first in the foul crop of Korea-themed movies), could have been about WW2 or WW1, as the story, except for being “localed” in Korea, focuses more on soldierly stuff than the real important historical backdrop. The commies of course are beyond the pale, and, ultimately, flaws and all, American fighting men prove to be the best the world has ever seen. Fuller, a “man’s director” who himself had been a soldier, went on to make a second flick about this war, the very same year, 1951, popular among buffs of this genre, Fix bayonets! In his motion picture debut, James Dean appears briefly at the conclusion of the film. The Steel Helmet was produced by Lippert Studios, founded by a guy who owned about 120 theaters and was fed up with the rental fees he had to pay the big studios. Of some tangential redeeming interest: Racial integration of the U.S. military was going on during the Korean War and the movie is a parable about how all Americans needed to pull together and fight the Cold War. In sum, an ethnocentric film with little to say about the truth of the Korean conflict and with a standard dose of imperial propaganda and opportunistic message about race relations. 




1952 Battle Zone

Love triangle gets hot in Korea

Battle Zone is a 1952 Korean War war film. Sequences of the film were shot at Camp Pendleton, California.

A rivalry develops between veteran of World War II M/Sgt Danny Young (John Hodiak) and Sgt. Mitch Turner (Stephen McNally) Marine combat photographers over the attentions of Jeanne (Linda Christian), a Red Cross nurse during the Korean War. Another love triangle between red-blooded guys in uniform and battlefield nurses, again, chiefly concerning Americans. OK, this mess happens to be taking place in Korea, so it’s a war movie about Korea. Knowledge or insight about the conflict: zero. Propaganda value: the usual load. 






1954 Prisoner of War
Ronnie’s Noble Sacrifice for the Sake of Victory and Decency in Korea

Has Ronald Reagan ever been involved in any public enterprise not reeking of self-serving jingoistic nonsense? If you’re looking for that don’t look here because in this MGM turkey Ronnie sets new standards for service to the empire and its constant barrage of lies. The plotline says it all and you needn’t sit there for 90 minutes to figure the ending. The story peg is supposedly based on Capt. Robert H. Wise, who lost 90 lbs in a North Korean POW camp. The man served as the film’s technical advisor and said that the torture scenes in the movie were based on actual incidents. The rather ludicrous premise for the film is that an American officer (guess who) volunteers to be captured in order to investigate claims of abuse against American POWs in North Korean camps during the Korean War.

For starters, torture when concerning food and pleasant accommodations is a very relative term, especially as understood by Americans, not to mention that, as this article makes clear the conditions in North Korea, thanks to American carpet-bombing and nonstop atrocities had put the entire population on the very edge of barest survival. Expecting to be housed and fed as if he’d been a tourist staying at the local Hilton is pure tendentious and intentionally dumb malarkey, the stuff that Ronnie Reagan thrived in.  The Wiki notes that the “release of the film created a minor controversy. “The U.S. Army had assisted production and made edits in the script, but approval was abruptly reversed on the eve of release. The depiction of mistreatment of prisoners complicated the courts martial of POW collaborators that were proceeding at the time.”  The Wiki also adds that, in terms of historical accuracy, author Robert J. Lentz of the book Korean War Filmography: 91 English Language Features through 2000 states that the film was “undeniably overstated”.[3]

Expect no truth about North Korea here neither.


1954 The Bridges at Toko-Ri
Glamorizing the genocide in North Korea

The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a 1954 American war film about the Korean War and stars William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Mickey Rooney, and Robert Strauss. The film, which was directed by Mark Robson, was produced by Paramount Pictures. Dennis Weaver and Earl Holliman make early screen roles in the motion picture.
The screenplay is based on the novel The Bridges at Toko-Ri by Pulitzer Prize winner James Michener, himself a onetime Navy officer. 

Brubaker pondering his own finality on the carrier deck.

Forney (Mickey Roooney) flying his chopper to the rescue wearing his trademark (but non-regulation) Irish top hat.

PLOT: Dashing US Navy Lieutenant Harry Brubaker (William Holden), a fighter-bomber pilot serving on a carrier off the coast of North Korea is given a mission to blast the bridges at Toko-Ri. Holden is not exactly enthused by the idea but his reluctance is not so much motivated by opposition to the war or communist sympathies, just a simple case of self-preservation. Why me? During the attack the commies, always humourless and rude to a fault, have the audacity to shoot Brubaker down behind enemy lines, prompting an attempt at rescue by the movie’s two lovable characters,  Chief Petty Officer (NAP) Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney) and Airman (NAC) Nestor Gamidge (Earl Holliman). The boys gallantly try their best to extract Brubaker from his tight spot but the malevolent commies again spoil the fun by blowing up the chopper (a Sikorsky HO3S-1) and killing Nestor.  That now leaves Brubaker and Forney hugging a ditch, trying to hold off the enemy with pistols and Forney’s and Gamidge’s M1 carbines until they can be rescued, but both are killed by the North Korean and Red Chinese soldiers. Admiral Tarrant (Fredric March), angered by the news of Brubaker’s death (whom he regarded as a son), demands an explanation from mission Commander Lee of why he attacked the second target. Lee defends his actions, noting that Brubaker was his pilot too, and that despite his loss, the mission was a success. Tarrant, realizing that Lee is correct, rhetorically asks, “Where do we get such men?” At this point there is not a dry eye in the house. Mission indeed accomplished.

1957 Battle Hymn
Pious Rock Hudson battling commies and doing orphan rescue

We sum up this film as a straight highly manipulative propaganda artifact from beginning to end, calculated to touch all the right sentimental buttons in decent people.  Heartthrob Rock Hudson is recruited to do his part for the empire and the national religion, “free enterprise” at all costs. Indeed, in Hollywood (and Television) history, few actors have ever escaped that kind of duty, not that they were even remotely aware of what they were doing.

Battle Hymn (aka By Faith I Fly) is a 1957 Technicolor war film starring Rock Hudsonas Colonel Dean E. Hess, a real-life United States Air Force fighter pilot in the Korean War. Hess’s autobiography of the same name was published concurrently with the release of the film. He donated his profits from the film and the book to a network of orphanages he helped to establish. The film was directed by Douglas Sirk and produced by Ross Hunter and filmed in CinemaScope. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dean Hess (Rock Hudson) was a minister in Ohio. The attack prompts him to become a fighter pilot. Hess had accidentally dropped a bomb on an orphanage in Germany during World War II, killing 37 orphans. At the start of the Korean War, Hess volunteers to return to the cockpit and is assigned as the senior USAF advisor/Instructor Pilot to the Republic of Korea Air Force, flying F-51D Mustangs. As Hess and his cadre of USAF instructors train the South Korean pilots, several orphaned war refugees gather at the base. He solicits the aid of two Korean adults, En Soon Yang (Anna Kashfi) and Lun Wa (Philip Ahn), and establishes a shelter for the orphans. When the Communists begin an offensive in the area, Hess evacuates the orphans on foot and then later, after much struggle with higher headquarters, obtains an airlift of USAF cargo aircraft to evacuate them to the island of Cheju, where a more permanent orphanage is established.

1972—1983 Network television

MASH: Liberal propaganda apotheosis

MASH is a colossal case of a sacred bovine in US culture, almost universally acclaimed, so it may seem foolish, even reckless, to try tilting at it, but that’s what we need to do to peel away the complacency reinforcing the official narrative about these international tragedies. Let us begin by quoting the Wiki:

is a 1972–1983 American television series developed by Larry Gelbart, adapted from the 1970 feature film MASH (which was itself based on the 1968 novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, by Richard Hooker). The series, which was produced with 20th Century Fox Television for CBS, follows a team of doctors and support staff stationed at the “4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital” in Uijeongbu, South Korea during the Korean War. The television series is the best-known version of the M*A*S*H works, and one of the highest-rated shows in U.S. television history. M*A*S*H aired weekly on CBS, with most episodes being a half-hour (22 minutes) in length. The series is usually categorized as a situation comedy, though it is also described as a “dark comedy” or a “dramedy” because of the dramatic subject material often presented…”

OK, fine. We get it. This is a much admired and beloved tv series that apparently everyone in America embraces unquestioningly (the list of things Americans embrace without question is long and getting longer by the day).  Personally, I think this universal approval may be a case of groupthink, liberal style. Why, let me play the Grinch, once again.

MASH is cowardly. MASH is ostensibly (wink wink) about the Korean war, but it aired during the Vietnam War since the producers quite characteristically wanted to avoid controversy (and risk the ratings). Amiability in the service of the tyranny of conformity, especially when Mammon is involved, is always a strong point with affluent liberals.

The Greanville Post Editor Patrice Greanville, also founder of Cyrano's Journal, the earliest US radical media critique, has long tracked and mapped the methods and instruments used by the power elites to keep the public in splendiferous innocence about the facts that define contemporary events.

MASH whitewashes the US “right” to intervene anywhere. By hiding the actual viciousness of the Korean war and the US role in it, and depicting Americans as a bunch of kind, largely innocent, good-natured do-gooders in a foreign land, MASH reinforces the notion that even if Americans turn up in a country uninvited, they’re surely going to be a force for the good of everyone, a rather dubious idea to put it mildly, especially if we ask your Syrian, Libyan or Iraqi man in the street.



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