Walking in the National Mall here in Washington the other day, I wandered into the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which celebrates the U.N. and the countries that fought together in the conflict. I was struck by the ways that the nearly 70-year-old war seems to be coming full circle in the current round of tensions with North Korea. I don’t know if that history was on President Donald Trump’s mind as he spoke at the U.N. about North Korea yesterday, but I know it’s on some of yours, particularly Masthead member Hank, who wrote to request help understanding “the long and recent history of Korea.” Today, I’ll relate my conversations with historians about what we’ve forgotten in the decades since the war.
North Korea’s Already Lived Through Near-Total Annihilation
At the U.N. yesterday, Trump warned, “If [the United States] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” The Kim regime, however, has lived through total destruction before, according to University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, who spoke to me by phone. In the 1950s, the U.S. conducted a vast bombing campaign to try to subdue the North, similar to the strategy of all-out war against Germany and Japan. That campaign left North Korea physically devastated. 75 percent of Pyongyang was destroyed, according to the U.S. Air Force—worse destruction than Germany or Japan suffered. As many as one in five North Koreans were killed, many in the most brutal fashion. “Napalm was used very widely at a time when no one criticized it,” Cumings said. “The North Koreans see that as a general holocaust.”
That mindset is drilled into contemporary North Koreans. New Yorker reporter Evan Osnos traveled to Pyongyang recently, and found leaders blasé about the prospect of nuclear war. If the United States used nuclear weapons against North Korea, “a lot of people would die. But not everyone would die,” a North Korean official told Osnos.
Even the threat of nuclear attack is old news for the North Koreans. American strategic bombers based in Guam periodically fly over North Korea in shows of force that simulate a nuclear strike, but as Cumings has written, the U.S. has been flying those kinds of missions since 1951, when the threat would have been even more believable. “One can imagine the steel nerves required of leaders in Pyongyang,” Cumings wrote, “given the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just six years earlier.”
For North Korea, the War Never Ended
For everyday North Koreans, Cumings pointed out, Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric about blasting the U.S. with nuclear weapons targets the same enemy responsible for the deaths of grandparents they lost in the war. “It is something that really scarred North Korea, and that every North Korean is taught from the time that they are schoolchildren. And my impression is that most Americans are completely unaware of it.” Because the war is a distant memory for Americans, they risk underestimating what North Korea is capable of doing, said Cumings. “They don’t really understand that North Korea is still fighting the Korean War.”
And while Americans may remember the soldiers they lost, in South Korea, the damage was different. Tens of thousands of civilians and prisoners were executed by the South Korean government during the war. But “the subject of civilian casualties occupies a marginal place in the American memory of the Korean War,” wrote Su-kyoung Hwang in her history book, Korea’s Grievous War. “South Korea’s economic prosperity after the 1990s is the most commonly cited factor used to justify the U.S. role in the Korean War and the continued presence of the U.S. troops along the Korean demilitarized zone,” Hwang continues. Whereas South Korea set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reckon with its past, Americans’ skewed perception of history has cast a “deep shadow” over their ability to make sense of the deaths of civilians in the conflict.
The idea of American victory is also contested among historians. “The U.S. did not win the war,” said Cumings. After pushing back the initial North Korean invasion in 1950, the U.S. decided to try to eliminate the Communist North Korean state. U.S. forces tried to press all the way to the border with China, but the Chinese sent their own forces in. “The U.S. ran right up to the Yalu River, and we just got our asses kicked,” Cumings said. The result was that the 38th parallel, the geographic border that Washington drew in the middle of the country, became essentially permanent.
A Hot Conflict Has Settled Into a Cold Status Quo
One crucial difference between the 1950s and today, however, is that the South Korean government is no longer interested in violence. In 1950, University of Georgia historian William Stueck wrote me in an email, “Both North and South were aggressive militarily toward the other, with the U.S. restraining the latter and the Soviet Union restraining the former.” Then, both the North and South Korean states were brand new, with the North headed by Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current dictator, and the South run by Syngman Rhee, an expatriate literally flown in by the U.S. military to take over from the formal American occupation. Rhee ran a police state and was “almost begging the United States to support him for a Northern invasion,” said Cumings.
The international dynamic is also completely different. “Today, China is trying to restrain the North while the South is restraining the U.S.,” said Stueck. North Korea’s “relative power compared to 1950 is much diminished, and the U.S. is strongly committed to South Korea's defense.” That makes war less likely, despite the heated rhetoric. “Also, the two Koreas have a quality of permanence today that they did not have,” Stueck added.
Korean Central News Agency/Reuters
Despite the history, Americans have trouble taking the long view. U.S. officials have often assumed their Kim problem will resolve itself when the North Korean state finally collapses of its own accord. Cumings, whose first book about the Korean War was published in 1980, thinks that’s unlikely. “Kim Jong Un is 33 years old, and he’s likely to be around as long his grandfather was. He’ll be 83 in 50 years, and I wouldn’t be surprised—not that I’ll be around—but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still in power.”
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