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North Korean Quagmire: Part 2. Bombing, Nuclear Threats, and Resolution

Politics / North Korea Jan 19, 2018 - 10:03 AM GMT

By: Raymond_Matison


U.S. bombing crusade

After much experimentation and scientific study by Germany, Britain, and the United States, by 1943 it became clear that “a city was easier to burn down than to blow up.”
George Ball had been a member of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey team that was charged with studying the effects of bombing Germany and Japan.  It found that the resolve of both the German and the Japanese population to resist the enemy had not been broken by intensive bombing.  Despite this knowledge, what hardly any Americans know or remember is that we carpet-bombed North Korea for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties.

Ignoring George Ball’s conclusion regarding the effects of bombing related to the resolve of people, in the fall of 1951 incendiary raids reminiscent of those during WWII were carried out against the North with such effectiveness that Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg complained, “We have reached the point where there are not enough targets left in North Korea to keep the air force busy.”  

With the Chinese offensive, as U.S. troops were falling back from northern North Korea, General Walker ordered the evacuation of Pyongyang with a “scorched earth policy” to destroy everything that might be of use to the enemy.  We set on fire most of the villages we passed through.  We weren’t going to give the Chinese too many places to shelter in during the rest of the winter.

An all-out assault on Pyongyang on July 11, 1952, involved 1,254 air sorties by day and 54 B-29 assaults by night, the prelude to bombing thirty other cities and industrial objectives under “operation PRESSURE PUMP”.  Highly concentrated incendiary bombs were followed up with delayed demolition explosives.  Cities were razed “because the bombing offensive had long ago become an end in itself, with its own momentum, its own purpose, devoid of tactical or strategic value, indifferent to the needless suffering and destruction it caused.”

As a result, the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 leveled a lot of the North’s inherited advantages.  Kim Il-sung’s mistaken calculation to invade the South led, among other things, to U.S. carpet-bombing of the country which essentially wiped out all Japanese-built industries.  U.S. dropped more bombs on the North than they had done in all air campaigns in WWII.

The air assaults ranged from the widespread and continual use of firebombing to threats to use nuclear and chemical weapons, and finally to the destruction of huge North Korean dams in the last stages of the war.  In 1953, US Air Force hit huge irrigation dams that provided water for 75% of the North’s food production.  In the end the scale of urban destruction quite exceeded that in Germany and Japan, according to U.S. Air Force estimates.  The United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea (not counting 32,557 tons of napalm, compared to 503,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War II.

Charles Joy, chief of the Korean mission of CARE and witness to World War I and II, wrote, “In twelve successive years of relief work in different parts of the world, I have never seen such destitution and such widespread misery as I have seen here.
Hungarian charge d’affaires, Maria Balog, reported in February 1951 Korea has become a pile of ruins.  There are no houses or buildings left.  Cities and villages have been blown up, or destroyed by bombings, or burned down.  The population lives in dugouts in the ground.

Freda Kirchwey, senior editor of The Nation, angrily observed, ‘Someday soon the American mind, mercurial and impulsive, tough and tender, is going to react against the horrors of mechanized warfare in Korea … liberation through total destruction cannot be the answer to the world’s dilemma.  Upton Sinclair, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and social activist, worried that devastation by bombing was counterproductive because it fomented a “hatred of Americans in Asia.”

United Nation’s Genocide Convention defined the term saturation bombing as acts committed ”with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.  Under this definition and under the aegis of the United Nations Command, the USAF was inflicting genocide.

McNamara who had a minor planning role in the firebombing of Japanese cities in WWII asked of himself and Curtis LeMay, the commander of the air attacks:  “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” “We were behaving as war criminals.”

This 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 the country and a memento for building a fierce hatred through the ranks of the population.

With the front under constant air attack the Chinese and North Koreans were forced to go underground.  Tunnels, bunkers, and trenches became the backbone of Chinas defensive strategy.  By August 1952, the Chinese had dug 125 miles of tunnels and 400 miles of trenches.  By the end of the war the Chinese had built an astonishing 780 miles of tunnels that comprised eleven thousand tunnels and caves which formed underground cities.

In Pyongyang, by the end of the war in 1953, only three major buildings remained standing.  Simply “there were no more cities in North Korea.”  When foreigners visit North Korea this is the first thing they hear about the war.  One needs to ask as to how we would feel if some foreign power came in and leveled all of Washington DC - leaving only three buildings standing, and required its populace to dig out and live in underground shelters?  How long would we be antagonistic to the power responsible for this destruction?  How long would we remember?

Juche ideology

During the Cold War nothing epitomized the North Koreans’ view that they were the true defenders of Korean ethnic identity and nationalism more than Kim Il-sung’s ideology of juche.  Self-determination in the North Korean context meant that as a small country surrounded by ravenous large powers, it had to practice juche, or self-reliance, and independence, in its internal and external policies. North Korea could not rely on the good graces of others, it had to fend for itself and preserve true Korean identity.
In this regard, juche greatly differed from Marxism-Leninism in its privileging of the state and sovereignty.  For Marx, the nation-state would eventually “wither away” as workers united against capitalism.

Juche, by contrast, was all about the Korean state, Korean sovereignty, and Korean identity and independence.  At the Fifth Party Congress in 1970, juche was formally adopted as the sole guiding principle of the state.  Juche’s “self-reliance” did not mean autarky, but independence and freedom from the pressures and influence of external powers.   According to juche, South Korea was a foreign occupied country, allowing U.S. and Japanese imperialists to use it to aggress against the North. With juche North Koreans saw themselves as the authentic Koreans, claiming that they were not “foreign occupied” like the South.

This ideology appears to have accomplished something remarkable.  It has allowed the Kim dynasty to take hold of a country in a fashion that while being extremely repressive has allowed it to maintain its nationalism, reduced the influence of Communism, and excluded foreign dominance.  This has come at the high cost of creating a military state, which because of few alliances has been economically suppressed, and tyrannically governed.  The regime remains intact despite famine, global economic sanctions, a collapsed economy, and almost complete isolation from the rest of the world.

North Korea since the armistice

Stalin handpicked Kim Il Sung and installed him in Pyongyang as his faithful servant.
Around 80% of anti-Japanese guerrillas were members of the Chinese communist Party.  The disunity of the Korean diaspora – a resistance made up of Communists, nationalists, bandits, and criminals – left Kim Il Sung with a conviction: unity above all else, and by whatever means necessary.  From then onward the North Korean leadership promoted a totalized politics: no dissent, no political alternatives, our way or the highway.  Korean nationalism was synonymous with anti-colonialism and anti-Japanese.  The dilemma of political means and ends, for them, is defined by being at war with either Japan or the United States ever since.

Since long-term survival of the regime is the leadership’s foremost concern, it must continue the policy of national isolation and politics of terror if it is to maintain its hold on power.  But what is the secret to the extraordinary enduring power of North Korea and the first communist dynasty, the Kim family regime?  The traditional patriarchal and hierarchical social structure of Korea’s Confucian past, Korea’s history of isolationism, and the fierce anti-imperialist nationalism that developed during the colonial period.
But in reality, Kim turned the country from socialism to a bizarre cult of personality.
This is the North Korean uniqueness – Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality and the regime’s hybrid Stalinist-Confucian system, and oriental despotism.   North Korea is thus a modern form of monarchy, realized in a highly nationalistic, postcolonial state.

By the time of Kim Il-sung’s death, it was expected that Kim Jong-il would succeed him in the first dynastic succession in communist history.  Kim Jong-il formally took the reins of power in 1998 but died in 2011 of a massive heart attack.  The only contribution that Kim Jong-il made to the Revolution was developing a nuclear weapons program.  Kim Jong-Un, the third leader from what is now the Kim dynasty, has continued to develop and test nuclear weapons and intercontinental missile delivery systems to continuing consternation of other powers around the globe.

More than sixty years after North Korea invaded South Korea, the first major hot war of the cold war has yet to end.  Two million soldiers face each other along a two and a half mile wide strip of land straddling that 155 mile-long Military Demarcation Line.

For the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea there is a deep-seated hatred of Japan.  For North Koreans Japan is ‘bad” in more ways than one - as a former colonizer, as an ally of the dreaded imperialist United States, and as a supporter of rival South Korea’s economic development.  It also condemns Japan’s remilitarization.  They hated the Japanese colonization of Korea, and believed that the Americans and their proxies in Seoul were agents of the past, not enablers of the future; the Americans were now the allies of the Japanese, as well as the old Koreans ruling class.

The cut-off of Soviet and Chinese patron aid at the end of the 1980s laid the groundwork for collapse in the 1990s when monsoons of biblical proportions hit North Korea in 1995 denuding the lands leading to the great famine.  The great famine that swept across North Korea 1995-1998 killed an estimated 600,000 to 1 million people.  Pyongyang submitted a humanitarian aid request to the UN WHO, UNICEF, Red Cross.  It is estimated that the US, Republic of Korea, Japan, and China accounted for over 80% of total food aid to North Korea form 1995 to 2007.  Finally, the collapse of East European communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989-91  spelled disaster for North Korea which to survive had relied extensively on Soviet aid.

North Korea presents one of the hardest intelligence targets to penetrate.  Very few are allowed to enter the country. Even fewer are allowed to exit.  What can be seen from satellites, moreover, is probably only a portion of that which is buried deep underground in eleven thousand tunnels and caves.  There is no freedom of assembly.  Police and internal security forces ruthlessly extinguish any sign of social disorder.  Peasants don’t even have pitchforks to rise up against the regime.  When one is a poor as a North Korean, one’s immediate concern is not to overthrow the system, it is merely to survive.
The secret police can knock on your door, strip you and your entire family of your worldly possessions, and throw you into a gulag because it was discovered that someone in your family from a previous generation was a collaborator with Japanese colonial authorities. North Korea ranked by Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index, rate it the Worst of the Worst for political rights and civil liberties.

A satellite imagery reveals the massive size of these gulag camps.  Aoncap is large enough to hold fifty thousand inmates.  There are six such camps in existence.
North Korean refugees paint a dark picture of life in the camps: widespread deprivation of food, medical treatment, and clothing, along with torture and public executions.
A striking feature of the North Korean Gulag system is “guilt by association” whereby family members of up to three generations, including children, are incarcerated along with the offending political prisoner.

Koreans inhabit a culture of particularly long memory, because of the respect they evince for the dead and the yet unborn: one’s ancestral inheritance and one’s progeny, links in a precession of past and present.  Therefore we can predict that the North Koreans will continue to do everything they can to avoid a collapse and absorption into the ROK.  Their entire society was militarized for men from the ages of fifteen to forty-five and for women from eighteen to thirty-five.  DPRK army of 1.1 million is the fourth largest in the world.  Also this enemy has something that our men don’t and that’s the willingness to die.

South Korea since the armistice

The first thing that the people in the South realized was that their country, or more accurately their half country, was controlled by people who lived thousands of miles away across a vast ocean, and had almost no interest or knowledge of the country whose future they would now determine.

South Korea suffered through three decades of military dictatorship while building a strong economy.  Once Japanese economic influence flowed back into South Korea and Taiwan in the early 1960s, along with a generous showering of American aid, these two economies were the most rapidly growing ones in the world for the next twenty-five years.  South Korea had morphed itself into a dynamic, highly productive, extremely successful democracy, rising to be the world’s tenth largest industrial economy.

At the same time all three states (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) were deeply penetrated by American power and interests.  For example, foreigners own about 40% of the shares of the Korean stock exchange, which given its economic success has been very profitable to those investor interests. 

South Korea, with 51.4 million residents has twice the population of the North, and was booming.  Its success was highlighted by the 1988 summer Olympics in Seoul, which marked a turning point in the city’s status and relationship with the world.  South Koreans dramatically showcased to billions around the world that they were no longer the party-stricken Asian war victim of the past, but a vibrant, rich, and modern, society.

The nuclear issues and threats – from the United States

Responding to a question by the press in the early stages of the Korean war, president Truman stated that there has always been active consideration of using atomic bombs.
The United States considered using atomic weapons several times and came closest to doing so in early April 1951. Atomic bomb loading pits at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa were operational; the bombs were carried there unassembled, and put together at the base – lacking only the essential nuclear cores.  On April 5 the JCS ordered immediate atomic retaliation against Manchurian bases if large numbers of new troops came into the fighting. The president signed an order to use them against Chinese and North Korean targets.

Operation Hudson Harbor was a project sought to establish the capability to use atomic weapons on the battlefield, and in pursuit of this goal lone B-29 bombers were lifted from Okinawa in September and October 1951 and sent over North Korea on simulated atomic bombing runs, dropping “dummy” A-bombs or heavy TNT bombs.

The Eisenhower administration began contemplating the use of nuclear weapons to achieve a quick end to the Korean War.  Eisenhower administration also sought to show that it would stop at nothing to bring the war to a close. In mid-May 1953, Ike told the National Security Council that using nukes in Korea would be cheaper than conventional weaponry, and a few days later the Joint Chiefs recommended launching nuclear attacks against China.

Later, in the early 1990s, A Washington Post op-ed by Brent Scowcroft and Arnold Kanter, urgently titled “The Time for Temporizing Is Over,” called for a U.S. military strike on the reprocessing plant in Yongbyon if the DPRK did not allow inspectors back in.  In June 1994 the nuclear crisis reached an apex with the US, when Pyongyang defied the US unloading fuel rods from a nuclear reactor for the purpose of amassing plutonium for nuclear weapons.

A few years later, George W. Busch’s administration, reeling from the attack of September 11, designated North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” – a renegade regime that, along with Iraq and Iran, might fuel WMD terrorist threats to the homeland.

In the immediate aftermath of the apparent victory in the Iraq War, in the late spring of 2003, high American officials again spoke openly of trying to topple the North Korean regime violently.  In other words, our war with North Koreas continues apace: after 9/11 Donald Rumsfeld suggested preemptive nuclear strikes on rogue states.

The Clinton administration responded, as the secretary of defense William Perry has described, by drawing up plans for a possible military strike against North Korea.
Bill Clinton said a nuclear war started by the North would mean the end of the country as they knew it.

Pyongyang has said countless times that if the U.S. did not threaten it, there would be no need for nuclear weapons. It claims it pursues nuclear weapons out of self-defense against a U.S. invasion, and North Korean propaganda warns their citizens to be on 24/7 alert for aggression from American imperialists.

The nuclear issues and threats – from North Korea

Eventually North Korea sought the ultimate equalizer – nuclear weapons. Why did the Soviet leadership finally change its mind and approve of nuclear cooperation with the Pyongyang regime in 1985?  Soviet relations with China and the U.S. had worsened, North Korea’s strategic importance to the Soviet Union increased. 

In 2006 North Korea surprised the world by testing a nuclear device. A second device was tested in 2009.  In 2006, the DPRK officials announced that the north had acquired the status as full-fledged nuclear weapons state. Their TD-II missile would be able to reach the continental U.S.  In 2017 there were a total of seventeen additional firings in their missile test development program.  Therefore, it is arguable that North Korea now has its nuclear deterrent defense, and that no amount of negotiation or threat will convince North Korea to surrender them for some promised economic or security benefit.

In a 2018 meeting of North and South Korean officials, the North Koreans told their counterparts that they should not be alarmed by the North’s nuclear weapons as none of them are aimed at China, Russia, or South Korea, but rather the United States.

South Korea’s unsolvable problem with the North

The city of Seoul in South Korea is only 30 miles from the demilitarized border.  North Korea’s artillery is the largest force in the world of 13,000 systems and 2,300 multiple rocket launchers.  Artillery at the rate of hundreds of thousands of rounds per hour could rain on the city of Seoul, and its population of 24 million. Therefore, North Korean artillery can rain millions of shells, both conventionally and chemically armed on the population of Soul in one day.

A missile arsenal of 600 chemically armed Scuds could be fired on all South Korean airports, train stations, and marine ports, making it impossible for civilians to escape.
Pyongyang effectively holds Seoul’s population hostage.

Long-term effect and lessons from the four authors

Until 1941, the American military remained modest in size compared to other great powers, poorly funded, not very influential, and indeed not really a respected profession. Military spending was less that 1 percent of GNP throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.  North Korea was the occasion for transforming the United States into a country that its founders would hardly recognize.  The national purpose of the United States was to maintain the liberty of our people, rather than reform the entire world, but after Korea it was impossible for the United States to retreat from globalism or to reduce its defense spending.  Eisenhower’s warning went largely unheeded.  The militarization of American society and the ever growing military industrial complex had become the Korean War’s enduring legacy.

In Korea, we had learned that air and naval power alone cannot win a war and that inadequate ground force cannot win one either.  Korea had shown also that atomic weapons did not make war obsolete.  We have forgotten that war is still a political instrument.

The British, and in time the French, were learning that there was no upside to trying to sustain colonial relationships in this new era, and were pulling back, but now, somewhat to the surprise of its allies, Americans began to step in under the banner of anti-Communism.  The aggressors in World War II, Japan and Germany were tied down by American bases, and they remain so in the seventh decade after the war - we still don’t know what either nation would look like if it were truly independent.  We aren’t going to find out anytime soon, either.  The bases were put there to defend our allies, but also to limit their choices – a light hold on the jugular, which might sound too strong until Americans ask themselves, what would we think of foreign bases on our soil?

North Korean people are too oppressed to revolt the way we saw in the Middle East.  They have no weapons and have no capacity to organize against the state.  Countries, when pushed into a corner, have a tendency to lash out rather than whither away.  This does not mean they experience a bout of insanity; rather, it becomes perfectly rational to contemplate a desperate action.

The true tragedy was not the war itself, for a civil conflict purely among Koreans might have resolved the extraordinary tensions generated by colonialism, national division, and foreign intervention.  The tragedy was that the war solved nothing; only the status quo ante was restored, only a cease-fire held the peace.

It was a civil war, a war fought primarily by Koreans from conflicting social systems, for Korean goals. It did not last three years, but had a beginning in 1932, and has never ended.   American history, namely, the permanent stationing of soldiers in a myriad of foreign bases across the face of the planet, connected to an enormous domestic complex of defense industries.  For the first time in modern history the leading power maintained and extensive network of bases on the territories of its allies and economic competitors – Japan, Germany, Britain, Italy, South Korea, all the industrial powers save France and Russia – marking a radical break with the European balance of power and the operations of realpolitik, and radical departure in American history: an “archipelago of empire”.

There is no military solution in Korea and there never was.  We have proved over seven decades that we do not understand North Korea and that we cannot do anything about it - however much we would like to.  We can do something about our prejudices.

Thus we arrive at our absurd predicament, where the party of memory remains concentrated on its main task, perfecting a world-historical garrison state that will do its bidding and hold off the enemy, and the party of forgetting and never-knowing pays sporadic attention only when it must, when the North seizes a spy ship or cuts down a poplar tree or blows of an A-bomb or sends a rocket into the heavens.  Then the media waters part, we behold the evil enemy in Pyongyang, drums neat, sabers rattle – but nothing really happens, and the water closes over until the next time.

Resolution of the Korean Quagmire

From the writings of these four authors and their summary observations in the preceding section we can see, with the benefit of hindsight that many policies in this conflict were misguided or could have been implemented more constructively by each of its five participants.  In this section this author projects the lessons presented and combines them with developments since the publishing of these four books, and puts forth a likely resolution to this decade’s-long political, economic, and military quagmire.

The United States surely did the right thing in fighting rapidly expanding communism, which at the time appeared to have momentum towards communizing Asia and perhaps the world.  But in retrospect it may have made a serious mistake in partitioning this ancient country – unless the original geopolitical strategy was to induce or maintain some instability in the region.  

It is unlikely that North Korea, despite its threats to the contrary, will start a physical or military altercation.  Its leadership over many decades has shown that it is disciplined, resourceful and insightful in dealing with its adversaries.  North Korea’s leadership is quite aware of its weaknesses, and will not take any action that would destroy the nation and obliterate its leadership elite.  Its leadership is too intelligent to commit suicide by provoking U.S. to actual military action – despite their residual desire for retribution to the carpet bombing and nuclear threats.  So this simply will not happen, despite the bluster, and continuing test firing and further development of its nuclear missile program.

It is also likely that despite all the posturing and military exercises around the Korean peninsula, America will not initiate military action.  The most important reason for this is that China warned that if the United States were to attack North Korea first, it would come to the aid of North Korea.  This warning should not be discounted considering that a much weaker China engaged the United States in 1950 and fought its military to a stale mate – and today’s China is much stronger.  The second reason comes from the fear as to what destruction North Korea might unleash on South Korea if the United States attacks North Korea.  Acting contrary to South Korean fears would undermine its
allegiance to America in this mutually productive relationship.  So the most likely result is no actual military aggression by either side.

The relationship between North and South Korea cannot improve much in the near term – as long as North Korea has to deal with a South Korea, which in their eyes remains conquered due to the presence of American troops on South Korea soil and South Korea’s trade relationship with Japan.  The ultimate resolution will only come as North Korea is ultimately satisfied of its nuclear capability to protect itself, and remain sovereign. 

Iran, another axis-of-evil-labeled and earnest developer of nuclear weapons country will become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2018.  The SCO is a Eurasia political, economic and security organization which not only includes China and Russia, but also nuclear power nations of India and Pakistan which became full members in 2017.  Once Iran becomes accepted as a reliable nuclear power and trade partner-member of this organization, SCO’s desire to grow and expand will raise the possibility of their eventually inviting North Korea, with which Iran has had a long term relationship in developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons over decades, to also become a member.  A nuclear powered North Korea as a member of the SCO, whose members are mostly nuclear power states, would provide all of the security it could possibly desire, and yet be the sovereign it has always sought to be.  Its membership in the SCO would also allow its economy to thrive in ways not possible today.  From this position of increased security and economic recovery, North Korea would be able to eventually normalize relations with South Korea, and gradually reduce its loathing of U.S. presence in and around the Korean peninsula. 

Unification with South Korea is still out of the realm of consideration, but another thirty years could bring surprising changes.  There is little reason why these people in the North genetically similar to those in South Korea could not achieve similar growth and development as has occurred in the South – it just requires different politics. 

Therefore, the most reasonable outcome is to foresee no direct military conflict, no North Korean launch of nuclear missiles towards the United States, no invasion or attack by the United States of North Korean nuclear or missile facilities.  This means little or no threat for a regional war, or expansion to a WWIII, due to verbal threats between North Korea and America.  Finally, the consequence of such detente would be to have fewer activities disrupting global financial markets.

Raymond Matison

Mr. Matison was an Institutional Investor magazine top ten financial analyst of the insurance industry, founded Kidder Peabody’s investment banking activities in the insurance industry, and was a Director in Merrill Lynch Capital Markets.   He can be e-mailed at

Copyright © 2018 Raymond Matison - All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilizing methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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