Endless Atrocities: The US Role in Creating the North Korean Fortress-State

Paul Atwood, a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, provides a concise summary of the history that informs North Korea’s “relations with the United States” and “drives its determination never to submit to any American diktat”.

Excerpts from Atwood’s summary are here used as a framework, with other sources where indicated.

Atwood notes it is an American “myth” that the “North Korean Army suddenly attacked without warning, overwhelming surprised ROK defenders.”  In fact, the North/South border “had been progressively militarized and there had been numerous cross border incursions by both sides going back to 1949.”

Part of what made the US’s ultimate destruction of Korea (which involved essentially a colossal version of one of the cross-border incursions) “inevitable” was the goal of US planners to access or control “global… resources, markets and cheaper labor power”.

In its full invasion of the North, the US acted under the banner of the United Nations.  However, the UN at that time was “largely under the control of the United States”, and as Professor Carl Boggs (PhD political science, UC Berkeley) puts it, essentially was the United States. (28)   While it is still today the world’s most powerful military empire, the US was then at the peak of its global dominance – the most concentrated power-center in world history.  Almost all allies and enemies had been destroyed in World War II while the US experienced just over 400,000 overall war-related deaths after declarations and/or acts of war by Japan and Germany, whereas Russia, for example, lost tens of millions fending off the Nazi invasion.  Boggs further notes that as the UN gradually democratized, US capacity to dictate UN policy waned, with the US soon becoming the world leader in UN vetoes. (154)

In South Korea, “tens of thousands” of “guerrillas who had originated in peoples’ committees” in the South “fought the Americans and the ROK” (Republic of Korea), the Southern dictatorship set up by the US.  Before hot war broke out, the ROK military “over mere weeks” summarily executed some 100,000 to 1 million (74) (S. Brian Wilson puts the figure at 800,000) guerillas and peasant civilians, many of whom the dictatorship lured into camps with the promise of food.  This was done with US knowledge and sometimes under direct US supervision, according to historian Kim Dong-choon and others (see Wilson above for more sources).  The orders for the executions “undoubtedly came from the top”, which was dictator Syngman Rhee, the “US-installed” puppet, and the US itself, which “controlled South Korea’s military.”  After the war, the US helped try to cover up these executions, an effort that largely succeeded until the 1990s.

At a point in the war when the US was on the verge of defeat, General Douglas MacArthur “announced that he saw unique opportunities for the deployment of atomic weapons. This call was taken up by many in Congress.”  Truman rejected this idea and instead “authorized MacArthur to conduct the famous landings at Inchon in September 1950”, which “threw North Korean troops into disarray and MacArthur began pushing them back across the 38th Parallel”, the line the US had “arbitrarily” drawn to artificially divide Korea, where there was “overwhelming support for unification” among the country’s population as a whole.  The US then violated its own artificial border and pushed into the North.

China warned the US it would not sit by while the its neighbor was invaded (China itself also feared being invaded), but MacArthur shrugged this off, saying if the Chinese “tried to get down to Pyongyang” he would “slaughter” them, adding, “we are the best.”  MacArthur “then ordered airstrikes to lay waste thousands of square miles of northern Korea bordering China and ordered infantry divisions ever closer to its border.”

It was the terrible devastation of this bombing campaign, worse than anything seen during World War II short of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that to this day dominates North Korea’s relations with the United States and drives its determination never to submit to any American diktat.

General Curtis Lemay directed this onslaught. It was he who had firebombed Tokyo in March 1945 saying it was “about time we stopped swatting at flies and gone after the manure pile.” It was he who later said that the US “ought to bomb North Vietnam back into the stone age.” Remarking about his desire to lay waste to North Korea he said “We burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea too.” Lemay was by no means exaggerating.

Lemay estimated the US “killed off” some “20% of the [North Korean] population.”  (For comparison, the highest percentage of population lost in World War II was in Poland, which lost approximately 16.93 to 17.22% of its people overall.)  Dean Rusk, who later became a Secretary of State, said the US targeted and attempted to execute every person “that moved” in North Korea, and tried to knock over “every brick standing on top of another.”

Boggs gives many examples of mass atrocities, one taking place in 1950 when the US rounded up “nearly 1,000 civilians” who were then “beaten, tortured, and shot to death by US troops”, another in Pyongyang when the US summarily executed 3,000 people, “mostly women and children”, and another when the US executed some 6,000 civilians, many with machine guns, many by beheading them with sabres.  He notes this list, just of the major atrocities, “goes on endlessly.” (75)

US/UN forces in Korea in tanks painted to look like tigers.

When Chinese forces followed through on their threat and entered North Korea, successfully pushing back US troops, Truman then threatened China with nuclear weapons, saying they were under “active consideration.” For his part, “MacArthur demanded the bombs… As he put it in his memoirs:

I would have dropped between thirty and fifty atomic bombs…strung across the neck of Manchuria…and spread behind us – from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea- a belt of radioactive cobalt. It has an active life of between 60 and 120 years.

Cobalt it should be noted is at least 100 times more radioactive than uranium.

He also expressed a desire for chemicals and gas.

In 1951 the U.S. initiated “Operation Strangle”, which officials estimated killed at least 3 million people on both sides of the 38th parallel, but the figure is probably closer to 4 million [“mostly civilians” and “mostly resulting from US aerial bombardments” in which civilians “were deliberately targeted” (54, 67-8), as were “schools, hospitals, and churches” (65).  Estimates for the death toll also go “much higher” than 4 million (74)].

Boggs notes US propaganda during this time period (the US was a world leader in eugenics scholarship and race-based “legal” discrimination) dehumanized Asians and facilitated targeting and mass executions of “inferior” civilians: the “US decision to target civilians … was planned and systematic, going to the top of the power structure. …no one was ever charged…”  Some in the US forces, such as General Matthew Ridgeway, claimed the war was a Christian jihad in defense of “God”.  (54-5)  Analysts at George Washington University, looking at US contingency plans from this era to wipe out much of the world’s population with nuclear weapons, determined a likely rationale for the US’s doctrine of targeting of civilians is to “reduce the morale of the enemy civilian population through fear” – the definition of terrorism.

Atwood continues:

The question of whether the U.S. carried out germ warfare has been raised but has never been fully proved or disproved. The North accused the U.S. of dropping bombs laden with cholera, anthrax, plague, and encephalitis and hemorrhagic fever, all of which turned up among soldiers and civilians in the north. Some American prisoners of war confessed to such war crimes but these were dismissed as evidence of torture by North Korea on Americans. However, none of the U.S. POWs who did confess and were later repatriated were allowed to meet the press. A number of investigations were carried out by scientists from friendly western countries. One of the most prominent concluded the charges were true.

At this time the US was engaged in top secret germ-warfare research [including non-consensual human experimentation] with captured Nazi and Japanese germ warfare experts, and also [conducting non-consensual human experimentation on tens of thousands of people, including in gas chambers and aerial bombardments, with mustard gas and other chemical weapons,] experimenting with Sarin[, later including non-consensual human experimentation], despite its ban by the Geneva Convention.

Boggs notes the US “had substantial stocks of biological weapons” and US leaders thought they might be able to keep their use “secret enough to make a plausible denial”.  They also thought that if their use was uncovered, the US could simply remind its accusers that it had never signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol on biological warfare. (135-6)

A 1952 US government film made to instruct the US armed forces on the US’s “offensive biological and chemical warfare program” says the US can “deliver a biological or chemical attack … hundreds of miles inland from any coastline” to “attack a large portion of an enemy’s population.”  The film shows US soldiers filling bio/chemical dispersal containers for “contamination” of enemy areas, and then a cartoon depiction of US bio/chem weapons agents being delivered from US ships, passing over Korea, and covering huge swathes of China.

Boggs notes “the US apparently hoped the rapid spread of deadly diseases would instill panic in Koreans and Chinese, resulting in a collapse of combat morale”. (136)

Atwood adds that as in the case of the Rhee/US mass executions of South Koreans, Washington blamed the evident use of germ warfare on “the communists”.

The US also used napalm, a fiery gel that sticks to and burns through targets,

…extensively, completely and utterly destroying the northern capital of Pyongyang. By 1953 American pilots were returning to carriers and bases claiming there were no longer any significant targets in all of North Korea to bomb. In fact a very large percentage of the northern population was by then living in tunnels dug by hand underground. A British journalist wrote that the northern population was living “a troglodyte existence.” In the Spring of 1953 US warplanes hit five of the largest dams along the Yalu river completely inundating and killing Pyongyang’s harvest of rice. Air Force documents reveal calculated premeditation saying that “Attacks in May will be most effective psychologically because it was the end of the rice-transplanting season before the roots could become completely embedded.” Flash floods scooped out hundreds of square miles of vital food producing valleys and killed untold numbers of farmers.

At Nuremberg after WWII, Nazi officers who carried out similar attacks on the dikes of Holland, creating a mass famine in 1944, were tried as criminals and some were executed for their crimes.

Atwood concludes it is “the collective memory” of the above “that animates North Korea’s policies toward the US today”.

Under no circumstances could any westerner reasonably expect … that the North Korean regime would simply submit to any ultimatums by the US, by far the worst enemy Korea ever had measured by the damage inflicted on the entirety of the Korean peninsula.

Robert J. Barsocchini is an independent researcher and reporter whose interest in propaganda and global force dynamics arose from working as a cross-cultural intermediary for large corporations in the US film and Television industry.  His work has been cited, published, or followed by numerous professors, economists, lawyers, military and intelligence veterans, and journalists.  He begins work on a Master’s Degree in American Studies in the fall.

Boggs references: Boggs, Carl. The Crimes of Empire. London; New York: Pluto; Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Additional notes:

1) Regarding which side technically fired the first shot in the Korean War, “Bruce Cumings, head of the history department at the University of Chicago, gave us the definitive answer in his two-volume The Origins of the Korean War, and The Korean War: A History: the Korean war started during the American occupation of the South, and it was Rhee [the US-installed dictator], with help from his American sponsors, who initiated a series of attacks that well preceded the North Korean offensive of 1950. From 1945-1948, American forces aided Rhee in a killing spree that claimed tens of thousands of victims: the counterinsurgency campaign took a high toll in Kwangju, and on the island of Cheju-do – where as many as 60,000 people were murdered by Rhee’s US-backed forces.”

Truman then used the North’s counter-attack “to justify sending American troops to Korea to keep Rhee in power”.

2) Chomsky, whom International Business Times notes is “one of the world’s most eminent academics and political commentators”, and Herman, an award-winning media and political economy analyst and economist, find a chief reason for the US destruction of Korea (as well as Vietnam and other places) was the “demonstration effect”, or “threat of a good example”.  They cite US government documents noting China’s economic growth would soon “outstrip” non-“communist” countries, and that the US thus needed to take action to ‘retard’ economic growth in “communist” states, which it did in Asia and globally.  Chomsky and Herman cite a National Security Council assessment that says in South Korea there was “discouragement at the failure to make as much progress economically and politically as North Korea”.  And a US intelligence estimate from 1959 noted that the US-installed dictatorship in South Vietnam would, like the US-installed dictatorship in South Korea, “lag behind” the North in terms of “development”.  Thus drastic action had to be taken where possible (in Korea and Vietnam, not China) to retard development and growth and prevent the “demonstration effect”.*  The US even undertook action to try to retard development in East Berlin, though for obvious reasons this was restricted to petty clandestine activities intended to both hamper growth and disrupt daily life, such as spoiling milk intended for school-children and breaking equipment in factories.

(The phrase “threat of a good example” comes from an Oxfam report on why the US was trying to destroy Nicaragua through terrorism in the 1980s.  The US was convicted of aggression in the world’s highest court for this campaign, but, since there is no enforcement mechanism against super-powers, refused to pay the damages awarded to Nicaragua.)

*Chomsky, Noam, and Edward S. Herman. “The Overall US Assault as the Primary Bloodbath.” The Political Economy of Human Rights. Boston: South End, 1979. 305, 423. Print.

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  • slorter

    Good post !

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  • David Rodriguez

    If you believe this load of baloney you will believe anything. Yes, the reasons for the outbreak of the war were more complex than most know but this screed is absolute crap. Read “The Korean War”, by Max Hastings or “This Kind of War” by T.R. Fehrenbach. All wars beget atrocities. To compare the actions of U.S., UN and South Korean troops to those of the crazed Communist North Koreans is absurd. Lew should be ashamed of himself for allowing this leftist nonsense to be published on his website.

    • Richard Arlen


      • Steve

        Well put, ditto for “slobotnavich”

      • David Rodriguez

        Mr. Arlen, I urge you to get professional help. And please wipe the spittle off of your face. The North Korean Communists paid dearly for their criminal, foolish attempt to impose a Communist regime on the south. Now, Arlen, go change your undies. I think you are carrying a load in them.

    • liamjq

      Max Hastings is your unimpeachable source!!!…HAHAHA

      • David Rodriguez

        My, we seem to have quite a few North Korean sympathizers out there. Hastings is a respected historian, whether you like him or not. Care to point out where he is factually inaccurate about this war? There is not a single reputable historian outside of North Korea who has described the Korean War as the author of that article has. The fact is that the Korean Communists invaded South Korea with the help of Stalin and, later, the Chinese Communists. Case closed.

        • DW3

          If a person disagrees with YOUR version of history, he’s a ” North Korean sympathizer”. Please, please GFYS NOW!!!!

        • President Borat

          the fact is half the population of Korea north and south was killed or wounded by Americans. The village was burned down in order to save it.

          • David Rodriguez

            We were not trying to save North Korea. We were fighting its vile Communist regime. No apologies to Reds.

          • President Borat

            what is the purpose of fighting a regime except to save the people? the regime is vile because of what they do to OTHER PEOPLE.

          • David Rodriguez

            Uh, no, we were fighting an evil gang of Communists. We didn’t bomb the hell out of Germany to “save” the Germans. That was, at best, an afterthought.

          • President Borat

            north Koreans are not more communist than south Koreans. And the same gang was an ally for a while like when fighting with Germany. So it has nothing to do with who is more “evil” and everything to do with empire.

            Saving Germany would have gone a long way towards immediate victory and long peace. The goal of empire is the OPPOSITE.

          • David Rodriguez

            WTF? North Koreans are not more Communist than South Koreans? Are you off your meds?

          • President Borat

            anymore than south vietnamese were less communist than the north. east germans and poles are not more communist than french and west germans. it’s an accident of geography. everybody is basically a communist at heart, and a capitalist too.

          • David Rodriguez

            Excuse me. I am NOT a God damn “Communist” at heart, or anywhere else. What baloney. Communists are evil, twisted, envious, worthless sacks of shit, period.

          • President Borat

            and they all just happen to be north of an imaginary line. who’d a thunk?

            from your description of communists, im sure you fit the bill just right.

      • Michael Hastings is not impeachable as a hater of all things American military, obviously.

        To me his report on General McChrystal that got him fired was a breach of confidence, but true. And his bonafide credentials are signed by his blood in a fire by the side of a road in Los Angeles.

        Your spying government had remote control capabilities already in the 1990’s.

        Reap and sow, though. God is not mocked.

  • slobotnavich

    This has to be the most idiotic, mindless, and totally fabricated version of the origins and conduct of the Korean War ever propagated. N. Korea was and remains a bizarre anachronism, a murderous little gulag-state that might have come straight from the pages of 1984, a state which has the minutest fraction of the GDP of South Korea, now an economic powerhouse in East Asia. The guy who wrote this utter drivel had to be a sociology professor, most likely from Berkeley or Antioch College. He sure as hell ain’t no accredited historian.

    • President Borat

      North Korea is a gulag state because of the trauma inflicted by Americans who killed 20% of the population and must have wounded, starved, tortured and ruined pretty much anyone else.

      North Korea must be getting supplies from Russia and China who have always been supplied by the West. The endless circle of lies and murder begins and ends at home.

      • slobotnavich

        I must assume you’re posting from either North Korea or Berkeley, that bastion of higher “learning” and Marxist indoctrination. And China and Russia “have always been supplied by the West?!!” I must assume that your degree is in studied ignorance, misinformation, and incoherence. You should repeat 8th and 9th grades, preferably in a school in Kansas or Wyoming, where normal working people live.

        • President Borat

          I’m posting from a smartphone something the”normal working people” of the Ftard States never heard about except to look up the latest celebrity gossip and download porn. Nobody works in Kansas or Wyoming. Instead you grave at the lard buffet wherever you can drag that carcass off the TV couch. Just a Country Boy! The Radio Told Me! Picking up my welfare check my daddy killed gooks and I take opiod pills while playing online video games made in China. But furiners!


          • slobotnavich

            Umm, could you tell where I could get this strange and incomprehensible post translated into either English or Spanish? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that your communication skills haven’t been totally eroded by long-term hard drug use.

          • President Borat

            you can’t it’s pure trump-hat. has no intelligible translation you have to see farther than a nose length for one and a pair of cross-eyes doesn’t help either.

      • Well that’s not exactly why it’s a gulag state. The Communists are guilty all by themselves and U. S. Government abuses are good reason for a garrison state, but a useful excuse for the many abuses against the population. American government evil does not make them saintly any more than American aggression in Africa excuses female genital mutilation.

        Search Helping Hands Korea.

        • President Borat

          that’s completely besides the point. When a massive trauma is inflicted on any population, a totalitarian society will result. The Kh mer Rouge only came to power after Cambodia was carpet bombed out of any normal existence. And the continuing existence of North Korea is a policy of the United States in particular, those people could not possibly be anything on their own.

    • He quoted the generals themselves on what they did. And considering the long list of atrocities by both civilian and military leaders of the U. S. in the past and present, mostly overseas, it is not so unbelievable. Custer’s slaughter of an American Indian village of women and children, Gulf of Tonkin, Dresden destruction, Waco Texas, false flag chemical attack in Syria, massive illegal collection of every keystroke and every phone call of every person, the unnecessary atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

      • slobotnavich

        Well, it’s certainly true that the American Way of War since Sherman’s March to the Sea, our “strategic bombing” and killing of millions of German and Japanese civilians (none of which shortened the war so much as a week), has often involved killing millions of non-combatants and the destruction of major civilian population centers. Oddly, the widely protested Vietnam War (my war) employed tactical shelling and bombing of only enemy military installations and troops – we never bombed North Vietnamese population centers (though we did a pretty good number on Haiphong Harbor), though the NVA and Viet Cong weren’t at all hesitant about attacking South Vietnamese population centers or cities, as was amply demonstrated during the Tet Offensive of ’68, for which I was present. Thousands of South Vietnamese leaders and clergymen were brutally murdered in that outright invasion of the South, which turned out to be the greatest defeat ever suffered by the NVA in that war. It took them nearly two years to rebuild their troop strength after that sound thrashing.

    • Romi Elnagar

      I have read this version of what the US did to Korea elsewhere.

      We slaughtered civilians at My Lai, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wounded Knee, and Fallujah. Our pets, the Israelis, slaughtered civilians at Deir Yassin, Kfar Qassim, Sabar and Shatila and Gaza.

      Why should I believe the comforting lies American historians and the MSM tell us? Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, “My country, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world…”

      • slobotnavich

        You left out Dresden, Tokyo, Berlin, Frankfort, etc. In truth, neither the Japanese nor the Germans had any heavy bombers capable of strategic bombing. Their bomber forces were intended primarily for support of their infantry and armored forces. The whole concept and execution of mass bombing of civilian population centers was developed by the British and we Americans. The irony of this murderous policy was that German war production reached its highest peak in November ’44, just four months before Germany’s final collapse and surrender. To this day the US remains the only nation to use nuclear weapons on an enemy nation, this when the Japanese were desperately trying to explore surrender options through neutral parties. The main obstacle was our insistence on “unconditional surrender,” no questions asked. To the hapless Nips that could have meant anything, from all Japanese men being sterilized to all the women being sold into sex slavery as concubines for the victorious allies. BTW, My Lai was a bizarre anomaly in the Vietnam War – I did two tours in that hapless little country, the first a rifle platoon leader and company XO, the second with the then Top-Secret MAC-SOG operation of the 5th Special Forces Gp, only declassified in 2,000, twenty years after the war ended. When I first heard of the My Lai incident at first I didn’t believe it. When it finally came to light that it was true I assumed that Calley’d be sentenced to life in Leavenworth Federal Prison, wherein he’d find himself married to about twenty hard-core inmates. Instead the SOB was given a slap on the wrist and, last I heard, was working in a jewelry store somewhere down South. Unfortunately, for many Americans, Calley’s murder spree became the standard by which the Vietnam War was measured, when in fact it was a war we fought with the greatest restraint and concern for civilian casualties in our history.

  • Thanks, good information on Korea. My Dad was sent there but he never talked about it. He later became a Pentecostal pastor with a denomination whose by-laws included a conscientious objector section for refuseniks.

    But a note on Nicaragua. Did the High Court that adjudicated damages to Nicaragua, also impose sanctions on the Cuban and Russian supporters of earlier Sandinista terrorism?

    Did they consider testimony from the followers of the former Santinistas hero Comandante Zero, who quit the Ortega dictatorship and announced a new guerrilla movement in a news conference in Costa Rica?

    I got a medical exemption from the Vietnam War draft and have opposed every war since. A friend of mine runs a missionary work for North Koreans on both sides of the border from South Korea, Helping Hands Korea. Search it. They will need lots more help soon, it looks like.

  • crushlimbraw

    If our perspective is that we’re the good guys and everyone else is ‘DaBadGuys’ – we’re deluded!
    As a recovering NeoCon – I see the symptoms and recognize them immediately. The fact is that we have and have had a small segment of our population that profits immensely from war – just as we have a small segment who profits from ‘poverty’ and its perpetuation.
    Over the last few years, I have built up an archive on this and other issues and it ain’t pretty – http://crushlimbraw.blogspot.com/search?q=american+war+history – multiple authors that will keep you reading for hours.
    If I had to summarize where we are as a nation, it would be in one word – INSANE!
    My basic premise is explained at – http://www.crushlimbraw.com – let’s hope we survive this!

    • President Borat

      those whom the gods would destroy first make mad.

  • Americans are fool of the fool.
    Some of them are going to lose life again, in somewhere far east where there’s nothing to do with them.
    American idiocy kind of feature has no bound.

    When the empire is going to end, they will finally find themselves really hated from the whole world.
    Until then, better keep being stupid as you are.

  • Dr Mindbender

    This can all be ended, peacefully, if only the American people would fight and take Wall Street. You take the Head of the Beast and Cut off its Oxygen, than it OBEYS YOU ( the people) and will lick your FEET like a Puppy!

    This whole filthy mess, all of planet earths problems, are centered on Wall Street. Checkmate it and You win the Game.

    Now, if you cannot handle that, then Nuclear War will be for you to handle, America.