Can the United States Own Up to Its War Crimes During the Korean War?

Can the United States Own Up to Its War Crimes During the Korean War?

Can the United States Own Up to Its War Crimes During the Korean War?

An American journalist uncovers some ugly truths about the “forgotten war.”


When I was living in San Francisco in 1981, I met and became friends with Chun Sun-Tae, a Korean immigrant who had come to the United States as a college student in the 1960s and ran a small luggage shop in Oakland. James, as he was known, had grown up in the 1940s in the city of Kaesong in what was then the northern frontier of South Korea.

One warm day in June, 1950, he went camping with a group of friends at a nearby lake. The next morning, they woke to the sounds of artillery and gunfire: Kaesong had just been overrun by the Korean People’s Army and was now under control of the communist North.

Over the next three years, Kaesong would change hands several more times, and eventually became the site for the truce talks that led to the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting. It’s now located—as the photo above illustrates—just a few miles north of the current border in North Korea.

As a result of its unfortunate location, Kaesong was attacked several times during the war by US bombers and jet aircraft, who completely controlled Korean skies and dropped huge quantities of napalm and bombs on the country. Once, James told me, an American bomb ripped through a large structure in Kaesong where townspeople had sought shelter; hundreds of people were burned to death.

He described the experience of an American bombing in Memory of Forgotten War, a 2013 film by Ramsey Liem, a professor emeritus at Boston College.

“I still hear the sound… and then big clouds. Right after that… orange fire… blood here, shrapnel passing through my cheek.”

His father sent Chun south to Seoul, where his family thought he would be safe. When the lines dividing North and South were drawn after the 1953 armistice, Kaesong remained in the North—the only major city to change hands from South to North. James never saw his father again. But years later, during the 1980s, he became one of the first Korean-Americans to visit North Korea, and was finally reunited with the surviving members of his family.

Yet Korea remains divided, and tensions between North Korea and the United States are now higher than they’ve ever been. As the conflict has deepened in recent years, the nation north of the DMZ has become a source of hatred, disdain and fear. To most Americans, North Korea is an abomination, a “slave state,” ruthlessly run by a hereditary dictator, Kim Jong Un and a handful of sycophantic generals with funny hats and grim faces.

Few journalists ever get past these stereotypes to report on the country’s past, or look into the reasons for its hostility to the United States. Ask most reporters in Washington, and the words they’ll use for the North are “crazy” and “irrational.” And as we saw with the sophomoric film The Interview (and its reminders at this year’s Academy Awards), Hollywood sees North Korea and its leader as an endless source of amusement and parody.

But last week, for the first time in my memory, a mainstream US media outlet ran an article that not only challenged this narrow view, but cut through the haze to present the reasons for North Korea’s quite valid fear and distrust of America.

The US war crime North Korea won’t forget” was published on March 24 as a commentary in The Washington Post by Blaine Harden, a former Post reporter and the author of two books on North Korea. His first, Escape from Camp 14, told the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, one of the first people to escape from one of North Korea’s notorious prison camps (Shin, who lives in Seoul, has since changed parts of his story).

Harden is now on tour for his second book, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, which is about North Korea’s first dictator, Kim Il Sung, and a North Korean defector who flew a MIG fighter jet south during the height of the war. Harden, in other words, is someone with no illusions about the North.

That makes his Post article even more compelling, and I hope it’s read far and wide, especially in Washington. After explaining how the North’s leaders use the Korean War as a propaganda tool against the United States, Harden argues that there is truth behind some of the regime’s claims.

The hate is not all manufactured. It is rooted in a fact-based narrative, one that North Korea obsessively remembers and the United States blithely forgets.

The story dates to the early 1950s, when the US Air Force, in response to the North Korean invasion that started the Korean War, bombed and napalmed cities, towns and villages across the North. It was mostly easy pickings for the Air Force, whose B-29s faced little or no opposition on many missions.

The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless, even by the assessment of America’s own leaders. “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population,” Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984. Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, US bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops.

Although the ferocity of the bombing was criticized as racist and unjustified elsewhere in the world, it was never a big story back home. US press coverage of the air war focused, instead, on “MiG alley,” a narrow patch of North Korea near the Chinese border. There, in the world’s first jet-powered aerial war, American fighter pilots competed against each other to shoot down five or more Soviet-made fighters and become “aces.” War reporters rarely mentioned civilian casualties from US carpet-bombing. It is perhaps the most forgotten part of a forgotten war.

He ends with a plea for reconciliation.

Since World War II, the United States has engaged in an almost unbroken chain of major and minor wars in distant and poorly understood countries. Yet for a meddlesome superpower that claims the democratic high ground, it can sometimes be shockingly incurious and self-absorbed.

In the case of the bombing of North Korea, its people never really became conscious of a major war crime committed in their name. Paying attention in a democracy is a moral obligation. It is also a way to avoid repeating immoral mistakes.

And if North Korea ever does change, if the Kim family were overthrown or were to voluntarily loosen its chokehold on information, a US apology for the bombing could help dispel 65 years of hate.

As someone who’s spent years trying to explain the animosity between North Korea and the United States to skeptical Americans, including with many articles in The Nation, these words were a revelation to me. They also caught the attention of people I know with significant experience in both North and South Korea.

“This is hugely significant,” says Christine Ahn, a Korean-American activist who is the prime mover behind a plan by Gloria Steinem and other prominent women to walk across the North-South border next month in a plea for peace on the peninsula. “In the Post, he actually writes that the US committed war crimes in Korea.”

Harden, she noted, has been a major voice exposing the evils of North Korea. “While we can’t deny the existence of labor and prison camps,” said Ahn, “he’s putting North Korea in historical context. That’s what we as activists have been trying to do all along.”

“We are walking to invite all concerned to imagine a new chapter in Korean history, marked by dialogue, understanding, and—ultimately—forgiveness,” Ahn told a news conference at the United Nations on March 10. As The New York Times reported:

The goal of the women was to punctuate their desire for a permanent peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice that halted, but technically did not end, the Korean War, a conflict that claimed an estimated four million lives, mostly Koreans, and separated millions of families.

The organizers, a broad array of international peace activists, also see their plan as a catalyst for other steps that could revive the North-South reconciliation process, which has essentially been paralyzed by hostility, suspicion and occasional eruptions of violence.

Mike Bassett, a former US Army officer who served in South Korea for most of the last decade as a tank commander and platoon sergeant, also linked Harden’s article to the need for reconciliation. “I was blown away” by the story, he told me. “This has been a subject I never expected anyone to talk about—and definitely not something as powerful as saying ‘we did commit war crimes there.’”

He compared the US attitude towards Korea, summarized in the oft-repeated phrase “the forgotten war,” to Japan’s refusal to recognize its terrible misdeeds during World War II. “The US will never admit what it did in Korea.”

Bassett’s knowledge runs deep. He was raised in Illinois by his grandfather, a Korean War veteran who was stationed with a US artillery battalion in the notorious “Iron Triangle.”

In the months after US forces crossed the 38th parallel in a disastrous attempt to occupy the North up to the Yalu River, it was a hotly contested area where United States, North Korean and Chinese forces often clashed, frequently in hand-to-hand combat. From his grandfather, Bassett learned first-hand about the human destruction caused by US bombing and shelling.

“He said his battalion decimated tons of civilians; he knew,” he said.

During his last deployment in 2008, Bassett was stationed in the most northern part of the DMZ with a reconnaissance-intelligence unit that often encountered North Korean soldiers just across the border. Until then, he had hated North Koreans with all his might. But the experience at the border began to change his perceptions.

“When I started pulling guard shifts on the DMZ, I’d be looking at them, and they were just like me—wet from the rain, cold, hungry. We made eye contact sometimes. I think we began to feel what each other was going through. I remembered what my grandfather had said—“we should have fought to the Yalu” and left Korea united.

“That experience made me want to change from shooting artillery at the North to learning how to resolve tensions. I want the regime to end, but it has to be in a humane way. Those guys [on the border] suffer just like I did.’

After leaving the military, Bassett studied at Yonsei University in South Korea and at American University in Washington, DC. He says he spent much of 2013 in North Korea, working as a consultant for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on a plan to organize a North-South Korean orchestra that would perform at the Peace Park on the DMZ. But the plan was scuttled after tensions escalated over North Korea’s objection to US-South Korean military exercises that Kim’s regime believes are practice runs for an invasion.

Facing up to the truths of the war is central to the peace process, said Bassett. “The Korean War is still the most advanced propaganda war in human history.”

I’ll have more on the 2015 Women’s Walk for Peace in Korea in a future posting.


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