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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.”