Bombing of North Korea 1950-1953

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The U.S. Air Force (USAF) carried out an extensive bombing campaign against North Korea from 1950 to 1953. During the campaign, conventional explosives, incendiary bombs, and napalm destroyed nearly all of the country's cities and towns, including an estimated 85 percent of its buildings.[1] Deaths among the civilian population have been estimated at approximately one million people, a number comparable to or greater than the toll from the World War II bombing of Germany (400,000 to 600,000 civilian deaths) and Japan (330,000 to 900,000 civilian deaths).

Background to Bombing Campaign: Seesaw War from June 1950 to July 1951; Stalemate July 1951 to July 1953

During the first several months of the Korean War, from June to September 1950, the North Korean Army succeeded in occuping most of the Korean Peninsula, rapidly routing U.S. and South Korean forces. On September 15, 1950, U.S. forces reversed the situation by landing behind North Korean lines at Incheon and forcing the North Korean Army to retreat to the North. The situation reversed again when Chinese troops entered the conflict on October 19, triggering a retreat by UN troops until mid-1951.

June-October 1950: "Precision Bombing" But High Casualties

During this period, U.S. Far East Air Forces (FEAF) B-29 bombers carried out massive aerial attacks on transport centers and industrial hubs in North Korea. Having soon established air supremacy by the destruction of North Korean aircraft in the air and on the ground, FEAF bombers encountered no resistance and "the sky over North Korea was their safe front yard."[2]

The first bombing attack on North Korea was approved on the fourth day of the war, June 29, 1950, by General Douglas MacArthur immediately upon request by FEAF's commanding general, George E. Stratemeyer. MacArthur's order preceded the receipt of an order of President Harry Truman to expand air operations into North Korean areas, also issued on June 29th but not received in Tokyo until June 30th.[3]

During this period, the official U.S. policy was to pursue precision bombing aimed at communication centers (railroad stations, marshaling yards, main yards, and railways) and industrial facilities deemed vital to war making capacity. The policy was the result of debates after World War II, in which U.S. policy rejected the mass civilian bombings that had been conducted in the later stages of World War II as unproductive and immoral.[4]

In early July, General Emmett "Rosie" O'Donnell requested permission to incinerate five North Korean cities. He proposed that MacArthur announce that the UN would employ the firebombing methods that "brought Japan to its knees." The announcement would warn the leaders of North Korea "to get women and children and other noncombatants the hell out."[5]

According to O'Donnell, MacArthur responded, “No, Rosy, I'm not prepared to go that far yet. My instructions are very explicit; however, I want you to know that I have no compunction whatever to your bombing bona fide military objectives, with high explosives, in those five industrial centers. If you miss your target and kill people or destroy other parts of the city, I accept that as a part of war.”[6]

In September 1950, MacArthur said in his public report the United Nations, "The problem of avoiding the killing of innocent civilians and damages to the civilian economy is continually present and given my personal attention."[7]

In October 1950, FEAF commander General Stratemeyer requested permission to attact the city of Sinuiju, a provincial capital with an estimated population of 60,000, "over the widest area of the city, without warning, by burning and high explosive." MacArthur's headquarters responded the following day: "The general policy enunciated from Washington negates such an attack unless the military situation clearly requires it. Under present circumstances this is not the case."[8]

Despite the official precision bombing policy, North Korea reported extensive civilian casualties. According to military analyst Taewoo Kim, the apparent contradiction between a policy of precision bombing and reports of high civilian casualties is explained by the very low accuracy of bombing. According to a FEAF analysis, 209 bombs needed to be dropped in order to reach an 80 percent likelihood of hitting a 20-foot by 500-foot target. For such a target, 99.3 percent of bombs dropped did not hit the target. Since many targets of the "precision" campaign were located in populated areas, high numbers of civilians were killed despite the policy of limited targeting.[9]

November 1950 - July 1953: Incendiary Attacks on Cities, Towns, and Villages

University of Chicago Professor Bruce Cumings discussing incendiary bombing during interview by Massachusetts School of Law Dean Lawrence R. Velvel, May 11, 2011

On November 3, 1950, General Stratemeyer forwarded to MacArthur the request of Fifth Air Force commander General Earle E. Partridge for clearance to "burn Sinuiju." As he had done previously in July and October, MacArthur again denied the request, explaining that he planned to use the town's facilities after seizing it. However, at the same meeting, MacArthur agreed for the first time to a firebombing campaign, agreeing to Stratemeyer's request to burn the city of Kanggye and several other towns: "Burn it if you so desire. Not only that, Strat, but burn and destroy as a lesson any other of those towns that you consider of military value to the enemy." The same evening, MacArthur's chief of staff told Stratemeyer that the firebombing of Sinuiju had also been approved. In his diary, Stratemeyer summarized the instructions as follows: "Every installation, facility, and village in North Korea now becomes a military and tactical target." Stratemeyer sent orders to the Fifth Air Force and Bomber Command to "destroy every means of communications and every installation, factory, city, and village."[10]

On November 5, 1950, General Stratemeyer gave the following order to the commanding general of the Fifth Air Force: "Aircraft under Fifth Air Force control will destroy all other targets including all buildings capable of affording shelter."[11] The same day, twenty-two B-29s attacked Kanggye, destroying 75% of the city.[12]

In the wake of the Kanggye attack, FEAF began an intensive firebombing campaign that quickly incinerated multiple Korean cities. Three weeks after the attacks began, the air force assessed the damage as follows:[13][14]

  • Ch'osan - 85%
  • Hoeryong (Hoeryŏng)- 90%
  • Huich'on (Hŭich'ŏn)- 75%
  • Kanggye - 75%
  • Kointong - 90%
  • Manp'ochin - 95%
  • Namsi - 90%
  • Sakchu - 75%
  • Sinuichu - 60%
  • Uichu - 20%

On November 17, 1950, General MacArthur told U.S. ambassador to Korea John J. Muccio, "Unfortunately, this area will be left a desert." By "this area" MacArthur meant the entire area between "our present positions and the border."[15]

In May 1951, an international fact finding team from East Germany, West Germany, China, and the Netherlands stated, "The members, in the whole course of their journey, did not see one town that had not been destroyed, and there were very few undamaged villages."[16]

On June 25, 1951, General O'Donnell, commander of the Far Eastern Air Force Bomber Command, testified in answer to a question from Senator Stennis ("...North Korea has been virtually destroyed, hasn't it?): "Oh, yes; ... I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean Peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name ... Just before the Chinese came in we were grounded. There were no more targets in Korea."[17]

In June 1952, as part of a strategy to maintain "air pressure" during armistice negotiations, FEAF's Fifth Air Force selected seventy-eight villages for destruction by B-26 light bombers.[18]

In August 1951, war correspondent Tibor Meray stated that he had witnessed "a complete devastation between the Yalu River and the capital." He said that there were "no more cities in North Korea." He added, "My impression was that I am traveling on the moon because there was only devastation—every city was a collection of chimneys."[19]

At the conclusion of the war, the Air Force assessed the destruction of twenty-two major cities as follows:[20]

  • Anju - 15%
  • Chinnampo (Namp'o)- 80%
  • Chongju (Chŏngju) - 60%
  • Haeju - 75%
  • Hamhung (Hamhŭng) - 80%
  • Hungnam (Hŭngnam) - 85%
  • Hwangju (Hwangju County) - 97%
  • Kanggye - 60% (reduced from previous estimate of 75%)
  • Kunu-ri (Kunu-dong)- 100%
  • Kyomipo (Songnim) - 80%
  • Musan - 5%
  • Najin (Rashin) - 5%
  • Pyongyang - 75%
  • Sariwon (Sariwŏn) - 95%
  • Sinanju - 100%
  • Sinuiju - 50%
  • Songjin (Kimchaek) - 50%
  • Sunan (Sunan-guyok) - 90%
  • Unggi (Sonbong County) - 5%
  • Wonsan (Wŏnsan)- 80%

The bombing campaign destroyed almost every substantial building in North Korea.[21][22] The war's highest-ranking U.S. POW, U.S. Major General William F. Dean,[23] reported that the majority of North Korean cities and villages he saw were either rubble or snow-covered wasteland.[24][25] North Korean factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were forced to move underground.[26] In November 1950, the North Korean leadership instructed the population to build dugouts and mud huts and to dig underground tunnels, in order to solve the acute housing problem.[27]

U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay commented, "We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too."[28] Pyongyang, which saw 75 percent of its area destroyed, was so devastated that bombing was halted as there were no longer any worthy targets.[29][30] By the end of the campaign, US bombers had difficulty in finding targets and were reduced to bombing footbridges or jettisoning their bombs into the sea.[31]

May 1953: Attacks on Major Dams

On May 13, 1953, twenty F-84s of the Fifty-eighth Fighter Bomber Wing attacked the Toksan Dam, producing a flood that destroyed seven hundred buildings in Pyongyang and thousands of acres of rice. On May 15 and 16, two groups of F-84s attacked the Chasan Dam. [32] The flood from the destruction of the Toksan dam "scooped clean" twenty-seven miles of river valley. The attacks were followed by the bombing of the Kuwonga Dam, the Namsi Dam, and the Taechon Dam.[33][34]

Tonnage Dropped: Korea vs. World War II and Vietnam War

The U.S. dropped a total of 635,000 tons of bombs, including 32,557 tons of napalm, on Korea.[35] By comparison, 503,000 tons were dropped in the Pacific theater during World War II, 864,000 tons were dropped on North Vietnam through December 31, 1967 during Operation Rolling Thunder,[36][37] and 500,000 tons were dropped on Cambodia from 1969 to 1973.[38]

Death Toll

In contrast to the detailed calculations of civilian casualties that followed the strategic bombing campaign against Japan, in North Korea the U.S. Air Force assessed the extent of area destroyed by bombing on a city-by-city basis but not did not estimate casualties resulting from the bombing campaign. General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, stated, "Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—twenty percent of the population of [North] Korea...."[39]

Applied to the population of North Korea, 9,726,000 in 1950, the estimate of 20 percent would imply a death toll of approximately two million.[40]

The most fully documented and recent estimate of North Korean civilian deaths comes from the PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset, developed by researchers at the Centre for the Study of Civil War (CSCW) and the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). Assessing a variety of sources, the PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset researchers concluded that the "best estimate" of civilian deaths in North Korea was 995,000, with a low estimate of 644,696 and a high estimate of 1.5 million.[41]

The Republic of Korea Ministry of Defense estimated total South Korean civilian casualties of 990,968, of which 373,599 (37.7%) were deaths. For North Korea, the Ministry estimated 1,500,000 total civilian casualties, including deaths, injuries, and missing, but did not separately report the number of deaths. [42]

Charles Armstrong, Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, estimated that 12–15 percent of the North Korean population was killed in the war, or approximately 1,167,000 to 1,459,000 people.[43] Armstrong did not separately estimate bombing deaths. Estimates of battle deaths range from a U.S. Department of Defense estimate of 214,899 to a Republic of Korea estimate of 294,931, according to the PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset.[41]

Irish historian Jon Halliday cites "a Soviet source" showing that the overall population of North Korea fell by 11.76 percent between 1949 and 1953, from 4,782,000 males and 4,840,000 females in 1949 to 3,982,000 males and 4,509,000 females in 1953, a decline of 800,000 males and 331,000 females.[44]

Comparative Death Tolls

Country Deaths Tons of Bombs
United Kingdom (1940) 60,595[45] 74,172[46]
Germany (1940-1945) 400,000 - 600,000[47] 1,415,745[48]
Italy (1940-1945) 59,796[49] 379,565[50]
France (1940-1945) 54,631[51] 570,730[52]
Japan (1944-1945) 330,000[53] - 900,000[54] 503,000[55]
North Korea (1950-1953) 995,000[41] 635,000[56]
North Vietnam (1965-1968) 52,000 - 182,000[57] 864,000[58]
Laos (1964-1973) 29,000[59] 2,000,000[60]
Cambodia (1967-1975) 40,000 - 150,000[61] 500,000[38][60]

German Bombing of Britain (1940-1941)

In the UK, 60,595 British were killed by German bombing,[45]

American Bombing of Japan (1942-1945)

After the earlier Doolittle Raid of April 1942 and the bombing of the Kurile Islands in July 1943, the strategic bombing campaign against Japan began in June 1944. The most intensive part of the campaign took place over a five-month period beginning with a massive firebombing attack on Tokyo on the night of March 9 and 10, 1945, that burned 16 square miles of the city. The Tokyo attack is considered to be the deadliest single air attack in history, with a death toll variously estimated at 75,000 to 200,000 people. The systematic firebombing of Japanese cities continued until the end of the war in August 1945. The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred on August 6 and August 9 with death tolls estimated at 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki.[62]

Two branches of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) came up with widely differing estimates of the overall number of Japanese civilians killed in the bombing campaign. The Medical Division estimated 330,000 (or 333,000) deaths based on Japanese government reports, while the Morale Division estimated 900,000 deaths, using a statistical sampling survey. Both estimates include the atomic bomb attacks.[63][64]

Allied Bombing of Germany (1940-1945)

After the war, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey reviewed the available casualty records in Germany, and concluded that official German statistics of casualties from air attack had been too low. The survey estimated that at a minimum 305,000 were killed in German cities due to bombing and estimated a minimum of 780,000 wounded. Roughly 7,500,000 German civilians were also rendered homeless. Overy estimated in 2014 that in all about 353,000 civilians were killed by British and American bombing of German cities.[65]

Later estimates of the death toll range from 400,000 to 600,000. Matthew White lists the following totals and sources:[66]

  • more than 305,000: (1945 Strategic Bombing Survey);
  • 400,000: Hammond Atlas of the 20th century (1996);
  • 410,000: R. J. Rummel;
  • 499,750: Michael Clodfelter Warfare and Armed Conflict: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1618–1991;
  • 593,000: John Keegan The Second World War (1989);
  • 593,000: J. A. S. Grenville citing "official Germany" in A History of the World in the Twentieth Century (1994)
  • 600,000: Paul Johnson Modern Times (1983)

Allied Bombing of France (1940-1945)

In France, 54,631 people were killed by US-UK bombing.[67]

Allied Bombing of Italy (1940-1945)

In Italy, 59,796 civilians were killed by US-UK aerial bombing.[68]

American Bombing of North Vietnam (1965–1968)

Operation Rolling Thunder was a three-year bombing campaign conducted against North Vietnam from March 2, 1965, to November 2, 1968. It was originally intended as a gradually intensifying campaign of selected targeting aimed at placing pressure on the North Vietnamese government to end its operations in the south of the country. Over time, the objectives of the campaign expanded to include interdiction of supplies and forces moving to South Vietnam. Estimates of civilian deaths in the campaign range from 52,000 to 182,000 people.[69]

American Bombing of Laos (1964–1973)

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. Air Force conducted an intensive covert bombing campaign in Laos intended to interdict supplies moving from North Vietnam to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. An estimated two million tons of bombs were dropped during the campaign, primarily anti-personnel cluster bombs, resulting in 29,522 deaths and 21,048 people injured. Dozens of casualties continue to occur each year due to unexploded ordinance.[59][70]

American Bombing of Cambodia (1967–1975)

From 1969 to 1973, the U.S. conducted two secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia, first the more limited Operation Menu and later the more expanded Operation Freedom Deal, which extended over the entire eastern one-half of the country and was especially intense in the heavily populated southeastern one-quarter of the country, including a wide ring surrounding the largest city of Phnom Penh. In large areas, according to maps of U.S. bombing sites, it appears that nearly every square mile of land was hit by bombs.[71] An estimated 500,000 tons of bombs were dropped according to Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, revising their estimate down from earlier figures. Similarly, Holly High, James Curran, and Gareth Robinson estimated 472,313 tons.[38][60]

The number of casualties of Cambodian civilians and Khmer Rouge fighters caused by U.S. bombing is unknown. Ben Kiernan estimates the total number of victims at between 50,000 and 150,000. A demographic study by Marek Sliwinski estimated that 40,000 Cambodians were killed by the bombing, though the study did not distinguish between civilians and combatants.[72]

Planning for Nuclear Attacks

On 5 November 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) issued orders for the retaliatory atomic bombing of Manchurian PRC military bases, if either their armies crossed into Korea or if PRC or KPA bombers attacked Korea from there. The President ordered the transfer of nine Mark 4 nuclear bombs "to the Air Force's Ninth Bomb Group, the designated carrier of the weapons ... [and] signed an order to use them against Chinese and Korean targets", which he never transmitted.[73]

Many U.S. officials viewed the deployment of nuclear-capable (but not nuclear-armed) B-29 bombers to Britain as helping to resolve the Berlin Blockade of 1948–1949. Truman and Eisenhower both had military experience and viewed nuclear weapons as potentially usable components of their military. During Truman's first meeting to discuss the war on 25 June 1950, he ordered plans be prepared for attacking Soviet forces if they entered the war. By July, Truman approved another B-29 deployment to Britain, this time with bombs (but without their cores), to remind the Soviets of U.S. offensive ability. Deployment of a similar fleet to Guam was leaked to The New York Times. As United Nations forces retreated to Pusan, and the CIA reported that mainland China was building up forces for a possible invasion of Taiwan, the Pentagon believed that Congress and the public would demand using nuclear weapons if the situation in Korea required them.[74]

As Chinese forces pushed back the United States forces from the Yalu River, Truman stated during a 30 November 1950 press conference that using nuclear weapons was "always [under] active consideration", with control under the local military commander.[75] After his statement caused concern in Europe, Truman met on 4 December 1950 with UK prime minister and Commonwealth spokesman Clement Attlee, French Premier René Pleven, and Foreign Minister Robert Schuman to discuss their worries about atomic warfare and its likely continental expansion. The United States' forgoing atomic warfare was not because of "a disinclination by the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China to escalate" the Korean War, but because UN allies—notably from the UK, the Commonwealth, and France—were concerned about a geopolitical imbalance rendering NATO defenseless while the United States fought China, who then might persuade the Soviet Union to conquer Western Europe.[76] The Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Truman to tell Attlee that the United States would use nuclear weapons only if necessary to protect an evacuation of UN troops, or to prevent a "major military disaster".[77]

On 6 December 1950, after the Chinese intervention repelled the UN Command armies from northern North Korea, General J. Lawton Collins (Army Chief of Staff), General MacArthur, Admiral C. Turner Joy, General George E. Stratemeyer, and staff officers Major General Doyle Hickey, Major General Charles A. Willoughby, and Major General Edwin K. Wright met in Tokyo to plan strategy countering the Chinese intervention; they considered three potential atomic warfare scenarios encompassing the next weeks and months of warfare:[78]

  • In the first scenario: If the PVA continued attacking in full and the UN Command was forbidden to blockade and bomb China, and without ROC reinforcements, and without an increase in U.S. forces until April 1951 (four National Guard divisions were due to arrive), then atomic bombs might be used in North Korea.
  • In the second scenario: If the PVA continued full attacks and the UN Command blockaded China and had effective aerial reconnaissance and bombing of the Chinese interior, and the ROC soldiers were maximally exploited, and tactical atomic bombing was to hand, then the UN forces could hold positions deep in North Korea.
  • In the third scenario: if China agreed to not cross the 38th parallel border, General MacArthur recommended UN acceptance of an armistice disallowing PVA and KPA troops south of the parallel, and requiring PVA and KPA guerrillas to withdraw northwards. The U.S. Eighth Army would remain to protect the Seoul–Incheon area, while X Corps would retreat to Pusan. A UN commission should supervise implementation of the armistice.

Both the Pentagon and the State Department were cautious about using nuclear weapons because of the risk of general war with China and the diplomatic ramifications. Truman and his senior advisors agreed, and never seriously considered using them in early December 1950 despite the poor military situation in Korea.[79]

In September and October, 1951, the U.S. implemented Operation Hudson Harbor to establish the capability for nuclear attacks on North Korea. The operation inlcuded sending lone B-29 bombers from Okinawa on simulated runs, during which dummy atomic bombs or conventional explosives were dropped.[80]

Ridgway was authorized to use nuclear weapons if a major air attack originated from outside Korea. An envoy was sent to Hong Kong to deliver a warning to China. The message likely caused Chinese leaders to be more cautious about potential U.S. use of nuclear weapons, but whether they learned about the B-29 deployment is unclear and the failure of the two major Chinese offensives that month likely was what caused them to shift to a defensive strategy in Korea. The B-29s returned to the United States in June.[81]

China border exclusion

For the entire duration of the war, areas on the border between Korea and China were excluded from bombing due to State Department concerns.[82]


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This page includes content from the Wikipedia pages "Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki", "Korea War," "Air raids on Japan", and "Operation Freedom Deal" under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.