In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump threatened to wipe a nation of 25 million people off the face of the planet.
“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life,” the president asserted. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” he added, much to the shock of the heads of state gathered in New York and people paying attention around the world.
While much of the world has come to expect empty bluster and bombast from Trump, the hungry, impoverished and crushingly oppressed people of North Korea know better than to dismiss the American threat. For those over the age of 65 or so, “total destruction” by the United States isn’t some abstract menace, it was a hellish reality that ranks among the greatest crimes of a century that witnessed some of the most appalling barbarity in all human history. Here’s what the “total destruction” of North Korea looked like the first time around:
In late summer 1945 the Korean people, reeling from half a century of brutal Japanese occupation, celebrated what they believed was their liberation at the hands of victorious Allied forces. They declared an independent Korean republic on September 7. The following day, Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur announced the US and its nominal ally the Soviet Union would be occupying a divided Korea, using vanquished but no less vicious Japanese security forces to repress angry Korean crowds. As the US backed a right-wing military dictatorship that began murdering tens of thousands of civilians who resisted its brutal rule, the people of North Korea created their own communist-aligned government, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which would come to be ruled by the military dictator Kim Il Sung.
When North Korea invaded the South in June 1950 with the goal of unifying the divided nation, General MacArthur — whose victory plan included potentially dropping dozens of nuclear bombs on China and North Korea — ordered his bombers to destroy “every city and village” from the Yalu River on the Chinese border south to the 38th parallel. Boeing B29 Superfortresses rained down relentless death and destruction on hapless civilians, bombing “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another,” according to war supporter and future secretary of state Dean Rusk.
General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay — who commanded firebombing raids on Japanese cities that killed more civilians than the nuclear bombings of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki — served as strategic air commander during the Korean War. He would later acknowledge that “over a period of three years or so, we killed off 20 percent of the population” of North Korea. That’s nearly 1.9 million men, women and children. In comparison, the Nazis murdered 17 percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population just a few years earlier.
More bombs were dropped on Korea than during the entire World War II Pacific campaign against the Japanese. The massive US carpet bombing of North Korea included napalm, incendiary and fragmentation bombs that killed and maimed by the thousands and left cities, towns, villages and countryside in scorched and shattered ruins. In the Northern capital of Pyongyang, only around 50,000 residents out of a prewar population of 500,000 remained. When there was nothing left to bomb in population centers, US warplanes bombed dams, reservoirs and rice fields flooding the countryside and destroying the nation’s food supply. Only emergency aid from China, the Soviet Union and other socialist nations averted imminent famine.
All this, just a few years after the United States led the creation of the Nuremberg Charter in reaction to Nazi crimes against humanity. Germans were tried and convicted at Nuremberg, and later executed, for “wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages.” Now Americans were committing crimes against humanity that rivaled the Nazis’ worst work.
US commanders ordered fighter pilots to strafe civilian refugees fleeing for their lives. When hundreds of South Korean civilians fled as Northern troops advanced southward, US forces opened fire on them at No Gun Ri. “There was a lieutenant screaming like a madman, ‘Fire on everything, kill ‘em all,’” recalled veteran Joe Jackman. “There was kids out there. It didn’t matter what it was, eight to 80, blind, crippled or crazy, they shot ‘em all.” As ground troops unloaded, Air Force fighters strafed the doomed refugees as they fled in panic or pathetically tried to claw into the riverbed or hide under the bodies of their dead relatives. This was but one of many such massacres.
At least 100,000 South Koreans were murdered by their own armed forces, who targeted anyone suspected of having leftist sympathies. American commanders approved, and US troops were present at, horrific mass slaughters throughout the war. “Babies were killed with their mothers holding them,” recalled 71 year-old Kim Jong-chol, whose father, sister, grandparents and cousins were all slain in one such atrocity.
Visting Korea in the summer of 1952, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was dumbstruck by the devastation he witnessed. “I had seen the war-battered cities of Europe,” he said, “but I had not seen devastation until I had seen Korea.”
This is the “total destruction,” the “fire and fury” Trump is threatening to visit upon the innocent people starving and suffering under the world’s most repressive dictatorship. Few Americans know much about what’s often called the “forgotten war,” just as few can name more than a handful of nearly 30 nations bombed by the United States since Korea. If you were to ask the average American which nation has killed the most innocent foreign civilians by far since Korea, they’d probably tell you the Soviet Union, China, Iran (which hasn’t started a war since the early 1700s), North Korea, Syria or some other bogeyman.
Fact is, the United States has killed more foreign civilians than all of those countries combined. And with Trump already proving in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia that he’s more than willing to live up to at least one of his big campaign promises — to “bomb the shit” out of America’s enemies and kill their innocent families, North Korea is sure to press full speed ahead on its nuclear and missile arsenals in a desperate bid to attain a viable deterrent to US attack. Can you really blame them?