North Korea has been making headlines almost daily with threats by ruler Kim Jong Un to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. “A nuclear button is always on my desk,” Kim proclaimed in a New Year’s Day speech. Since President Donald Trump took office, he has regularly defied and taunted Kim, labeling him “Little Rocket Man.” Yet clearly North Korea’s arsenal has been in the works for decades. You may wonder just what fuels this despotic dictatorship’s white-hot hatred of America?
The Korean War conflict from the 1950s has long shaped the political relationship of distrust between Washington and North Korea. While many Americans have forgotten about the war, it remains terrifyingly fresh in the memories of North Koreans, thanks in part to the ruling Kim family. And to this day, the war is technically not over, since a peace treaty was never signed.
“It is still the 1950s in North Korea and the conflict with South Korea and the United States is still going on,” Korean War scholar Kathryn Weathersby told The Washington Post. “People in the North feel backed into a corner and threatened.”
Here we’ll delve into eight statistics and events from the Korean War that have remained in the North Korean leaders’ and people’s memories for 65 years.
The Korean War
In 1948, the Korean region was split into two governments, both claiming to be the legitimate government of all of Korea. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, marking the beginning of the Korean War. China and the Soviet Union backed the north in the war, and the United States supported the south. The U.S. sent ground troops and also fought in the air. North Korea was subject to a massive bombing campaign.
Next: How many North Koreans died in the war?
20% of North Koreans died
The Washington Post quoted Korean War Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay as saying the U.S. killed off 20% of the population. Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said the U.S. bombed “everything that moved in North Korea.”
“Most Americans are completely unaware that we destroyed more cities in the North then we did in Japan or Germany during World War II,” said historian Bruce Cumings. “Every North Korean knows about this, it’s drilled into their minds. We never hear about it.”
Next: Some survivors suffered devastating injuries
Survivors were often burned badly
During the course of the three-year war, the United States dropped 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, reports say. This included 32,557 tons of napalm, a flammable liquid that can eat through forests and cause devastating burns to human skin.
By one account, “The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless, even by the assessment of America’s own leaders.” The bombings destroyed 75% of Pyongyang, as well as most or all of various other North Korean cities.
Next: The toll on food and industries
Bombs destroyed farmland and crops
Once most urban targets had been destroyed, U.S. bombers took out North Korea’s hydroelectric plant and 20 irrigation dams which managed 75% of the country’s water supply. The resulting flooding ruined rice crops and threatened millions with starvation. In the farms that remained untouched, peasants hid underground during the day and came out at night to farm.
Next: Thousands moved underground.
Factories were destroyed
Bombings destroyed some 8,700 North Korean factories. Some existing factories were moved underground to escape the bombing, reports said. North Koreans dug 776 miles of tunnels and 3,427 trenches to protect civilians. In addition to factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were moved underground.
Next: Civilians fled to the south.
Families were broken up
As many as 1 million civilians in North Korea reportedly fled to the south soon after the war began. Although many expected to return soon and be reunited with loved ones, they often had no way of returning. In one infamous wartime incident, defeated United Nations forces made a hasty retreat to South Korea via a crippled bridge. Throngs of panicked North Korean civilians followed them.
Next: How the war ended
How the Korean War ended
On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed, and fighting ceased. The war was considered to have ended at this point, even though there was no peace treaty. North Korea maintains that it won the war. With the end of fighting, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established. The area has been patrolled since then by North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., and the United Nations.
Next: Post-war politics
Post-Korean War politics
In the years following the 1953 armistice, North Korea has committed acts of aggression including sinking a South Korean ship, digging underground tunnels to Seoul, South Korea, and unsuccessfully planning to invade South Korea again. In 2013, North Korea confirmed it was ending the armistice and was entering a state of war with South Korea. At that time, Pyongyang informed the Pentagon it had “ratified” the potential use of a nuclear weapon against South Korea, Japan, and the U.S.
After Kim’s New Year’s Day 2018 comment on having a nuclear button on his desk, Trump retorted that he has a bigger button. All size comparisons aside, however, Trump commented Jan. 6 he “absolutely” would be interested in holding phone talks with Kim. It’s too soon to say for sure, but perhaps a peaceful resolution isn’t out of the question.
Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!