The Buzz

How American Air Power Destroyed North Korea

Thereafter, American and allied aircraft turned their sights to North Korea’s hydroelectric plant and the the twenty dams in North Korea that controlled 75 percent of the country’s water, which was needed for agricultural and the production of rice. In May 1953, U.S. forces knocked five of these dams out, causing massive flooding. It also put millions in North Korea at risk for starvation, although the worst of that was prevented because of a massive influx of food aid from the Soviet Union and China. The bombings did cause widespread electrical outages, and by the U.S. Air Force’s estimates destroyed all but 4 to 5 percent of North Korea’s railways.

As the official U.S. Air Force history noted of this time period: “During the last year of the Korean hostilities, American air power executed the dominant role in the achievement of the military objectives of the United States and of the United Nations. . . . No single air operation so gravely affected the Communists as the simple destruction of two agricultural irrigation dams, for this operation, too terrible to execute in its entirety, portended the devastation of the most important segment of the North Korean agricultural economy.”

Most outside analysts are far more skeptical that the U.S. strategic bombing campaign had much impact on the course of the war. The political scientist Robert Pape argues that North Korea and China’s major concessions in 1951 were the result of the air campaign weakening their military forces’ ability to achieve their objectives (coercion by denial) rather than the strategic bombing (coercion by punishment). Many others have argued that air power’s most effective contribution to the Korean War was in the interdiction of enemy lines. In particular, aircraft focused on destroying the bridges near the Yalu River to cut off Chinese and Soviet support. Still, since these bridges were often heavily defended by antiaircraft weapons, and the aircraft of the day had severe limitations, this campaign also had only limited success.

North Korea actually repaired the war damage faster than South Korea, which had been far less damaged during the war. A more enduring impact of the bombing is that it has been used as a propaganda tool by the Kim regime to instill hatred in all their citizens from a very young age. As Bruce Cumings explained: “Every North Korean knows about this, it's drilled into their minds.”

Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is the Wohlstetter Public Affairs Fellow at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Image: A Republic of Korea soldier awaits an attack during an amphibious assault by ROK and U.S. Marines on Tok Sok Ri beach as part of Exercise Reception, Staging, Onward movement and Integration/Foal Eagle 2002. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Keith J. Gardner

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