The United States Air Force (USAF) carried out an extensive bombing campaign against North Korea from 1950 to 1953 during the Korean War. It was the first major bombing campaign for the USAF since its inception in 1947 from the United States Army Air Forces. During the campaign, conventional weapons such as explosives, incendiary bombs, and napalm destroyed nearly all of the country's cities and towns, including an estimated 85 percent of its buildings.
- 1 Background to Bombing Campaign: Seesaw War from June 1950 to July 1951; Stalemate July 1951 to July 1953
- 2 June–October 1950: "Precision Bombing" But High Casualties
- 3 November 1950 - July 1953: Incendiary Attacks on Cities, Towns, and Villages
- 4 May 1953: Attacks on Major Dams
- 5 Tonnage Dropped: Korea vs. World War II and Vietnam War
- 6 Death Toll
- 7 China border exclusion
- 8 Legacy
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
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 Korean People's Army (KPA) succeeded in occupying most of the Korean Peninsula, rapidly routing U.S. and South Korean forces. On 15 September 1950, UN forces reversed the situation by landing behind North Korean lines at Incheon and forcing the KPA to retreat to the north. The situation reversed again when Chinese troops entered the conflict on 19 October, triggering a retreat by UN troops until early-1951.
June–October 1950: "Precision Bombing" But High Casualties
During this period, USAF Far East Air Force (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 the North Korean air force in the air and on the ground, FEAF bombers encountered no resistance and "the sky over North Korea was their safe front yard."
The first bombing attack on North Korea was approved on the fourth day of the war, 29 June 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 29 June but not received in Tokyo until 30 June.
During this period, the official U.S. policy was to pursue precision bombing aimed at communication centers (railroad stations, marshalling 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.
In early July, General Emmett 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." According to O'Donnell, MacArthur responded, "No... 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."
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."
In October 1950, FEAF commander General Stratemeyer requested permission to attack 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."
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 feet (6.1 m) by 500 feet (150 m) 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.
November 1950 - July 1953: Incendiary Attacks on Cities, Towns, and Villages
On 3 November 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."
On 5 November 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." The same day, twenty-two B-29s attacked Kanggye, destroying 75% of the city.
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:
- 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 17 November 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."
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."
On 25 June 1951, General O'Donnell, commander of the Far Eastern Air Force Bomber Command, testified in answer to a question from Senator John C. 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."
In August 1951, war correspondent Tibor Meráy 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."
Napalm was widely used. In John Ford's 1951 documentary, This is Korea, footage of napalm deployment is accompanied by a voice-over by John Wayne saying, "Burn 'em out, cook 'em, fry 'em"; the New York Herald Tribune hailed "Napalm, the No. 1 Weapon in Korea". Winston Churchill, among others, criticized American use of napalm, calling it "very cruel", as the US/UN forces, he said, were "splashing it all over the civilian population", "tortur[ing] great masses of people". The American official who took this statement declined to publicize it.
At the conclusion of the war, the Air Force assessed the destruction of twenty-two major cities as follows:
|City||% estimated destruction|
|Hwangju (Hwangju County)||97%|
|Kanggye||60% (reduced from previous estimate of 75%)|
|Unggi (Sonbong County)||5%|
The bombing campaign destroyed almost every substantial building in North Korea. The war's highest-ranking U.S. POW, U.S. Major General William F. Dean, reported that the majority of North Korean cities and villages he saw were either rubble or snow-covered wasteland. North Korean factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were forced to move underground. In November 1950, the North Korean leadership instructed the population to build dugouts and mud huts and to dig tunnels, in order to solve the acute housing problem.
USAF 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." Pyongyang, which saw 75 percent of its area destroyed, was so devastated that bombing was halted as there were no longer any worthy targets. 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.
Public statements by the U.N. command obfuscated the extent of the destruction of North Korean communities with euphemisms, for example by listing the destruction of thousands of individual "buildings" rather than towns or villages as such, or reporting attacks on North Korean supply centers located in a city with language suggesting that the entire city constituted a "supply center."
May 1953: Attacks on Major Dams
On 13 May 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 15-16 May, two groups of F-84s attacked the Chasan Dam. The flood from the destruction of the Toksan dam "scooped clean" 27 miles (43 km) of river valley. The attacks were followed by the bombing of the Kuwonga Dam, the Namsi Dam and the Taechon Dam. The bombing of these five dams and ensuing floods threatened several million North Koreans with starvation; according to Charles K. Armstrong, "only emergency assistance from China, the USSR, and other socialist countries prevented widespread famine."
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. By comparison, the U.S. dropped 1.6 million tons in the European theater and 500,000 tons in the Pacific theater during all of World War II (including 160,000 on Japan). North Korea ranks alongside Cambodia (500,000 tons), Laos (2 million tons), and South Vietnam (4 million tons) as among the most heavily-bombed countries in history, with Laos suffering the most extensive bombardment relative to its size and population.
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.
Armstrong estimated that 12–15 percent of the North Korean population (c. 10 million) was killed in the war, or approximately 1.2 million to 1.5 million people. Armstrong did not separately determine how many of these deaths were among civilians or caused by U.S. bombing. Estimates of North Korean military deaths range from a U.S. Department of Defense estimate of 214,899 to a Correlates of War estimate of 316,579, according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Battle Deaths Dataset.
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.
Armstrong states that the bombing had a profound, long-lasting impact on North Korea's subsequent development and the attitudes of the North Korean people, which "cannot be overestimated":
Russian accusations of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets did not register with the Americans at all. But for the North Koreans, living in fear of B-29 attacks for nearly three years, including the possibility of atomic bombs, the American air war left a deep and lasting impression. The DPRK government never forgot the lesson of North Korea's vulnerability to American air attack, and for half a century after the Armistice continued to strengthen anti-aircraft defenses, build underground installations, and eventually develop nuclear weapons to ensure that North Korea would not find itself in such a position again. ... The war against the United States, more than any other single factor, gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of outside threats that would continue long after the war's end.
- Harden (2017), p. 9
- Kim (2012), p. 470
- Kim (2012), p. 471
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The number of Korean dead, injured or missing by war's end approached three million, ten percent of the overall population. The majority of those killed were in the North, which had half of the population of the South; although the DPRK does not have official figures, possibly twelve to fifteen percent of the population was killed in the war, a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II.
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