SeongHan Kim is working on a PhD in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. His research interests lie at the intersection of missiology and peace studies. This story first ran in the PeaceSigns newsletter.
I am here in the United States as an international student. As an Asian student who has darker skin color, and as a Korean who has a strong accent, the question regarding my origination has been twofold. I have two Koreas.
It is similar to the question I am asked at the post office when I want to send something to Korea, “Which Korea: North or South?” It is a simple question, but it exemplifies how often the complicated past of my country can still significantly impact the present.
As a South Korean whose country is one of the closest allies of the United States (military-political-economic), I realize that many of my American friends are constantly surprised by the strange acts of a “clueless North Korea.” Such a reaction is not hard to understand when one considers that North Korea is the most closed country in the world. Almost every time North Korea comes up, whether from North Korean nuclear development, missile launching, or military tension at the demilitarized zone, many of my friends have raised questions about North Korea (and South Korea as well). When this occurs, I have two responses. First, I appreciate these genuine interests, and second, I try to use this opportunity as a learning experience.
Last week, I had an opportunity to meet a woman who was getting ready to attend her 50th high school class reunion in Southern Michigan. Seeing that I was Korean, after dinner she came to me and told me how happy she was to see her old Korean friend from her high school. According to Mrs. Robinson (this is not real name), her Korean friend was blinded by a “bomb” in 1952 at the age of three. She was the only survivor out of her siblings. Since she was blinded, her father gave her to an orphanage. Later, this girl was adopted by a Christian family in Northern Indiana and went to school in Michigan.
I listened politely to this compelling story, but I felt I needed to ask a question. “Mrs. Robinson, you said your friend was blinded by a bomb. Do you know who dropped that bomb?”
I could tell from the look on her face that Mrs. Robinson did not expect such a strange question. She was perplexed and said, “Maybe the Japanese?”
I answered, “During the Korean War, US Navy and Air Force had command of the air. When they started to fight in the Korean War, they attacked only military targets. Later they changed their military strategy. They began to attack anything that was moving on the ground, whether it be military or civilian. It is so sad, but I assume that your Korean friend was blinded by a bomb from the US military.”
Mrs. Robinson was surprised to learn of this strange history.
A Korean historian, Kim Tae-Woo, published a book, Bombing: Reading the Korean War through the Aerial Bombing Records of the United States Air Force, in 2013. He found tons of flight reports and military records from the US military during the Korean War from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Air Force Historical Research Agency. This book sought to portray the Korean War through the eyes of pilots and military personnel who were involved in this bombing campaign during the Korean War.
After the notorious indiscriminate bombing (napalm) of many cities in Germany and Japan, including the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, during the first stage of US involvement in Korea, the US military practiced “precision bombing” on military targets in an attempt to avoid heavy civilian casualties.
However, starting in November 1950 (after the Chinese People’s Army became involved), General MacArthur changed the strategy of “precision bombing” to a “scorched-earth policy to burn and destroy,” which meant unlimited use of napalm on every (possible) target on the ground, including cities and villages. For example, on November 8, 1950, the US dropped 640 tons of napalm onto the city of Sinuiju. In one day, the “town was gone.”
An important lesson from the past is that this fear and threat of such air strikes and bombing remains in the hearts of many people in North Korea. Although they suffer under a brutal regime and economic hardship, their fear of fire from the sky, a fear based on past experience, informs their current military obsession.
The question regarding bombing during the Korean War demands careful understanding of the past. I do not want to justify North Korean brinkmanship nor their inhumane dictatorship, but I do understand their fear. How many people in the US are aware of this “scorched-earth policy to burn and destroy” during the Korean War? How many Americans understand how significant a role this fear played in the development of the North Korean missile program?
Although I am saddened that Mrs. Robinson’s friend lost her sight in the Korean War, I am grateful that she had the opportunity to live a good life in the US. However, her story continues to be repeated over and over again at different times and different places. Many other people have not been so lucky. As long as airstrikes continue to be considered the most cost-effective solution for the military problems on the ground, more tragic stories will occur.