The Buzz

Why North Korea Is So Scared of America

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.

As tensions between North Korea and the United States reach a fever pitch, it’s worth remembering the origins of the hostility: the Korean War.

The general parameters of the war are well known. The conflict began when Kim Il-sung’s forces invaded South Korea in June 1950 with the tacit (if reluctant) support of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Kim’s forces quickly overran their southern counterparts and were on the brink of unifying the peninsula before U.S. forces intervened under the guise of the United Nations. They quickly pushed the North Korean forces back across the thirty-eighth parallel and threatened to unify the entire peninsula until a massive force of Chinese “volunteers” intervened and pushed the American and South Korean forces back to the thirty-eighth parallel. Thereafter, the two sides settled into a stalemate that more or less persisted until an armistice was signed in 1953.

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Less well remembered, at least in the United States, is that America waged a mercilessly air campaign against North Korea during the conflict. As the eminent historian on the war, Bruce Cumings, puts it: “What hardly any Americans know or remember . . . is that we carpet-bombed the North for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties.”

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