The recent surge in bluster and brinksmanship over North Korea are a reminder that the Korean War—known as the “forgotten war” in the United States—has never ended. It should surprise no one to hear Donald Trump make bombastic threats, or to learn that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un continues his bellicose arms buildup unabated. But the possibility of “fire and fury” in Korea is all too real: it was already brought to the entire peninsula the last time the United States was “locked and loaded” for war, and North Korea responded in kind.
President Truman called the US invasion of Korea a “war for peace,” the sort of phrasing that Joseph Heller would make infamous. This was a war where the US regularly used a scorched earth policy and one general referred to his “meat-grinder” strategy. The Americans named their military operations STRANGLE, SATURATE, SCATTER, SMACK, SHOWDOWN, RATKILLER, WOLFHOUND, KILLER, PILEDRIVER, and THUNDERBOLT. Between 1950 and 1953, US bombers dropped tens of thousands of tons of napalm—a weapon Army trade journals termed a “wonder” and a “blazing success.” General Ridgway ordered thousand-pound versions of napalm bombs that could “wipe out all life in tactical locality,” an approach used in designated free-fire zones that often included rural villages. Aerial bombardment campaigns against North Korea destroyed eighteen out of twenty-two major cities north of the 38th parallel, as well as dams integral to North Korean agriculture, producing waves of food scarcity for years after the war. At the end of three years of fighting, the war resulted in the deaths of three million Korean civilians—roughly 10 percent of the Korean population—and the displacement of three million more. 1.2 million soldiers from nineteen countries, including 36,000 Americans, were killed. In Korea, North and South, the consequences endure.
The three years from 1950–1953 that Americans call the “Korean War” and Koreans refer to as “6.25” for its June 25th start date, emerged out of Korea’s place between competing colonial powers and the limitations the Cold War placed on the futures of decolonizing nations in Africa and Asia. Since 1910, Korea had been a colony of imperial Japan. With Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II, Koreans celebrated their country’s liberation and hotly debated the political character of the new Korea.
From the early days of World War II, however, the Allied powers had decided that Koreans were unfit to decide their own fate. In memos and communiqués, diplomats and policy-makers regularly speak of how Koreans have been “emasculated” by Japanese rule and of the dubious nature of “Asiatic governments,” and recommend a period of “tutelage,” since “Koreans are not yet capable of exercising and maintaining an independent government.” The decision to divide Korea at the 38th parallel, with an American-controlled South and a North under the aegis of the Soviet Union, was a wholly American decision, decided during an all-night meeting on August 10–11, 1945 by the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee. Pleased to hear that Stalin agreed to the division, the US sent military forces to occupy the South, where they have remained.
Koreans, of course, needed no tutelage. As historian Bruce Cumings has written, the liberation period after August 1945 ushered in “an era of mass participation virtually unprecedented in Korean history and unequaled since.” Unabashedly leftist, and rooted in the anti-Japanese resistance movement, people’s committees called for land reform, wealth redistribution, Korean independence, and equal rights for women. In the North, the people’s committees were channeled into the new Korean communist government. Though they were subject to discipline and violence, they were nonetheless part of an indigenous Korean government.
In the South, spontaneous and autonomous workers’ unions formed in factories, peasant unions in the countryside, and women’s and young people’s political organizations in major cities. Self-governing committees developed in all major provinces, from large cities to small rural villages, eventually unifying into one body, the Korean People’s Republic. When the Americans arrived to occupy the provinces in late fall 1945, they encountered people’s committees in nearly every place they went.
After three years of military rule, in which the US reinstated Japanese colonial administrative personnel and undertook a concentrated year-long campaign to uproot the provincial people’s committees and arrest their members, the newly independent Republic of Korea was turned over to Syngman Rhee, a conservative and autocratic Korean exile who had spent years in Washington promoting himself as the face of the Korean independence movement. Rhee was a committed anticommunist, opposed the leftist people’s committees, and hoped to topple the North Korean government and unite the peninsula under his rule. He also agreed to allow the US to maintain a sizable military presence in South Korea.
American and South Korean nationalist stories of the Korean War describe it as a war to contain communism, to preserve democracy, and to protect South Korea from an “unprovoked” attack by the North. Official North Korean histories decry the American imperialists and their puppets in the South. Both of these nationalist fictions disavow the character of the war, and are unable to account for its violence. Like most civil wars, it displaced and disintegrated whole villages, made civilians into targets, divided families, and produced cycles of inter-Korean violence. The idea on both sides was to reclaim the entire peninsula, so this was a war fought to gain territory and to control the population.
Many provinces in the South—the heart of the people’s committee movement—were sympathetic to communism, and willing to aid the North Korean side. North Koreans, using guerrilla techniques learned from fighting Japanese colonialism, often didn’t wear uniforms, and the war quickly turned, for the US, into a war against counterinsurgents. For untrained, scared, young, and poorly equipped US combat troops, this meant that all Koreans became suspect.
The menace of the Korean guerrilla fighter haunted the Orientalist and anticommunist imagination of military officials. The stealthy, silent Korean guerrillas, clad in the “white pajamas” of traditional Korean costume, were seen to aid the “yellow hordes” and “red swarms” of Chinese communists and North Koreans. The Korean War was where the term “gook”—previously a pan-racial epithet—became attached to Asian bodies. Again and again in American news reports, war films, soldiers’ memoirs, and television shows, Americans described their fears of women disguising radios or bombs as babies, of women and children pulling rifles and hand grenades out of bundles and taking aim at US soldiers.
Afraid of how easy it would be for guerrilla soldiers to “infiltrate” the streams of displaced refugees coursing over the Korean countryside, the US Air Force ordered the strafing of all civilian refugees approaching American positions, and the Army was commanded to let no Korean refugees through American lines. Following Japanese imperial practice, American troops were ordered to burn whole villages suspected of harboring guerrillas and relocate villagers to locations controlled by US and UN forces.
American soldiers had to be trained to shoot at Koreans, and trained out of empathy for refugees. In article from Collier’s magazine in 1950, US Naval Captain Walter Karig describes a young pilot’s protest:
The young pilot drained his cup of coffee and said, “Hell’s fire, you can’t shoot people when they stand there waving at you.”
“Shoot ’em,” he was told firmly. “They’re troops.”
“But, hell, they’ve got on these white pajama things and they’re straggling down the road in little bunches of five and six pushing little handcarts full of bedding and stuff.”
“Heading which way?”
“See any women or children?”
“Women? I wouldn’t know. The women wear pants, too, don’t they? But no kids, no, sir.”
“They’re troops. Shoot ’em.”
“But when you come over they stand there and wave . . . ”
These official orders led to four days of horror in July 1950, near the village of No Gun Ri in Yongdong Province, where US jets strafed hundreds of villagers ordered to evacuate their villages. American soldiers opened fire for several days on those who took cover underneath a railroad trestle.
Ordered by US soldiers out of their villages, which was then torched, nearly 600 Koreans from No Gun Ri and Im Ke Ri were just preparing a midday meal on the road when US warplanes unleashed bombs and machine guns on the group. Chun Choon-ja, ten years old at the time, remembered: “It looked like heaven crashed on us. I threw away the water and ran to my mother. I found her moaning, breathing her last gasps. Part of her head was gone.” The planes roared away, but the Americans in the hills had now begun firing. Chun, her mother killed, ran blindly until her grandfather grabbed her hand and pulled her down into the stream and toward the tunnel of a railroad trestle, where she became separated from him again. “The American soldiers played with our lives like boys playing with flies,” she remembered.
To the US infantrymen of the 2nd Battalion, watching the air strike was “very hard to take”—the image was still lodged in their minds decades later. US veteran Buddy Wenzel recalled that “word came through the line, open fire on them . . . We understood that we were fighting for these people, but we had orders to fire on them and we did.” When the shooting cleared, soldiers rounded up the shocked and the wounded and herded them toward the trestle tunnels. Park Hee-sook, a 16-year-old who survived the No Gun Ri massacre, remembered entering the tunnel and seeing babies crawling over dead mothers. Inside the tunnel it was suffocatingly hot, and when people crawled out to get water or food, they were shot. Park was so thirsty she pushed aside bodies to drink blood mixed with water on the tunnel floor.
As night fell, periodic barrages of gunfire shook the tunnel and tracer bullets ricocheted inside its walls. In between barrages, people tried to slip away unnoticed by camouflaging their white clothing with dirt. Two women gave birth in the tunnel. One woman was too injured to take the baby with her as she tried to escape, and left it behind; her family later found her wandering village streets in a hysterical frenzy. Many infants were found smothered under their dead mothers.
On the second day, some of the survivors in the tunnel were able to escape; Chun Choon-ja was part of a group of ten refugees inexplicably summoned by American soldiers and given chocolate bars and safe shelter. Park Hee-sook was beckoned by an American soldier over to the foxholes, where she screamed at the men in Korean and pounded them with her blood-covered fists. These two girls were saved, but American planes returned to the tunnel on this second day, and gunfire continued to fire throughout the night. When the soldiers finally retreated, only children were left alive, guarded from bullets by the dead bodies of their parents and neighbors.
American soldiers remembered hearing buddies refuse to shoot, or turn, revolted from the order to fire on refugees. James Crume remembered watching battalion commander Herb Heyer “sit back” and “shake his head” in an “emotional thing” when the order was passed down to fire on the refugees. Staff Sergeant Larry Levine said it was like “a feeding frenzy took place. . . . It’s like, ‘Hey, shoot at anything that moves out there.’” Machine gunner Norm Tinkler, 19 at the time, remembered praying, “Please God, if I make it home alive, don’t let me have sons, because I couldn’t bear for a son of mine to go through this.”
By the morning of the third day, fewer than thirty people were left alive in the trestle. Decades later, survivors sought to account for the near 600 people who had evacuated the two villages, and estimated that about 400 were killed in the strafing and in the trestle; perhaps 200 escaped in the four days of chaos.
Park Hee-sook remembered sitting alone in her village home after her escape, waiting for her mother, crying “all night, day in and day out.” Decades later, she could still see piles of bodies in the daytime and feel their flesh. Wenzel, who had “understood that we were fighting for these people,” had nightmares that never stopped, and his alcohol-fueled hallucinations were of a little Korean girl and boy who had followed him at No Gun Ri. He would shout at his wife: “Don’t you see her? Don’t you hear her?”
South Korean survivors and scholars sought for years to have this massacre recognized, but it was actively repressed in both South Korea and the United States until a team of Korean and American Associated Press journalists, working with Korean survivors and American veterans willing to speak about their actions, broke the story in 1999. (Charles Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza published their findings as a book-length narrative in 2001, The Bridge at No Gun Ri, from which my retelling is drawn.) However, neither the US military nor the US government ever issued a formal apology or offered reparations, despite a massive effort by American and Korean journalists, Korean survivors, and American veterans still haunted by what they had done.
In South Korea, where rightist governments clung heavily to their alliance with the US military and declared the Korean War a victory against communism, families’ and survivors’ attempts to have wartime atrocities recognized were repressed by the series of military dictatorships in power until 1987. Families seeking redress were subject to prosecution, shunned from civil society, and blacklisted. After decades of activism from families, lawyers, and civil rights advocates, the Roh Mu‐hyun administration finally began investigating wartime violence.
Courageous Korean scholars like Kim Dong-Choon, who led South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2005–2009, have determined that there were hundreds of such events during the early months of the war, perpetrated by US and South Korean forces and violent Korean rightist groups. As American intelligence chief General Charles Willoughby argued years later, dismissing the violence of the Vietnam War, “My Lais” happened “all the time” in Korea.
When “fire and fury” were brought to Korea, they were accompanied by the threat of nuclear weapons. At a press conference on November 30, 1950, President Truman proposed the use of the atomic bomb in Korea to protect a “just and peaceful world order.” On December 9, undone by the unforeseen Chinese offensive, General MacArthur requested the use of twenty-six atomic bombs to counter the attack. On Christmas Eve, MacArthur upped the request to thirty-eight, and in later interviews, would talk about using anywhere from thirty to fifty nuclear warheads.
If this was a “war for peace,” radical and progressive activists around the world were tasked with arguing for a different definition of what peace entailed. Since the 1940s, pacifists, concerned scientists, feminists, anticolonial activists, and labor leaders joined together to oppose nuclear weapons and Cold War militarization through new governing bodies like the United Nations. The global network of communist parties convened several worldwide peace congresses, and developed the Stockholm Appeal, a petition against the further use of nuclear weapons eventually signed by 100 million people around the world.
Despite the Korean War’s unpopularity in the United States, repressive anticommunist politics hindered the development of an antiwar movement. To advocate for peace in the 1950s was to be labeled a communist and a subversive, to be blacklisted, arrested, and subjected to vigilante violence. Still, protests emerged, particularly as anticolonial and antiracist activists connected domestic racism with race wars abroad, and feminists argued that militarism was the escalation of gender violence.
W.E.B. Du Bois took the lead in forming the New York-based Peace Information Center to help distribute the Stockholm Appeal in the United States. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson targeted the Stockholm Appeal a few weeks into the Korean War, Du Bois—by then in his 80s—shot back, “There is in your statement no intimation of a desire for peace, of a realization of the horror of another World War, or of sympathy with the crippled, impoverished and dead who pay for fighting.” In his book In Battle for Peace, Du Bois tells the story of his arrest for acting as a “subversive agent” and the subsequent repression of the Center.
Two days after Truman’s proposed use of atomic weapons in 1950, Paul Robeson led a sit-in of 150 teenagers at the United Nations headquarters in Lake Success, New York to call for an immediate cease-fire in Korea. In the afternoon, twenty-nine busloads of women and children from New York City unloaded at the UN, and demanded to be heard in the Economic and Social Council meeting. The New York Times reported that “Housewives from all five boroughs of New York City, the majority of them Brooklynites, clustered about the curved council table, filled every seat and packed the aisle”, while “[c]hildren holding colored balloons stamped ‘Peace’ chased one another.”
These women were members of antiwar feminist coalitions like the interracial American Women for Peace, and the feminist of color Harriet Tubman Association and Sojourners for Truth and Justice. As historians Dayo Gore and Erik McDuffie have argued, they developed an internationalist politics that connected American racism and sexism to the Korean War and to the fate of the decolonizing world. As one elderly black woman told a reporter when polled on the Korean War, “Young woman, you need not ask me how I feel about peace. Why, we Negro people have been at war all the time.”
In May of 1951, the Women’s International Democratic Federation—a progressive feminist organization born out of European antifascist activism in the 1930s—sent a delegation of twenty women to North Korea to investigate atrocities committed against Korean civilians by American and South Korean troops. Traveling by air and train through northern China, the delegates found evidence of the destruction of food supplies and stores, the systematic use of sexual torture and rape, and the targeted destruction of towns, hospitals, and schools. The people they visited used scars and bullet wounds on their bodies as proof of their stories and of their pain. Delegates were shown scalps, blood stains, and burn marks on buildings, and carefully copied down the markings they found on bomb casings. When the WIDF tried to bring their report, We Accuse!, to the United Nations, and called for an immediate end to the bombing and the war and self determination for the Korean people, they were branded as communist propagandists. Ultimately, the WIDF were expelled from their consultative position at the UN, at the instigation of the United States.
While the WIDF and the PIC, the AWP, and the Sojourners didn’t succeed in building a large global antiwar movement—hampered by anticommunist repression—their example is the historical precedent for international antiwar organizing in Korea today. In May 2015, sixty-four years after the WIDF delegates undertook a similar mission, thirty international antiwar and feminist leaders walked across the demilitarized zone and held peace conferences in Seoul and Pyongyang to highlight the need for de-armament on the Korean peninsula. Their work continues as Women Cross the DMZ, or research and advocacy–oriented organizations like the Korea Policy Institute and the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea.
Today, the Demilitarized Zone is accessible only to non-South Korean citizens, and only by pre-arranged bus tour. To visit Panmunjom, where the armistice was signed, you must travel with military escort through the United Nations Command–Republic of Korea Joint Security Area. They check your passport, and make sure you conform to a “respectful” dress code. You walk in a single file line to the United Nations building that sits across the border, and see the North Korean guards facing the South Korean and United Nations guards in an unbroken, twenty-four-hour, decades-long stare. It feels like surreal theater but is in fact searing reality.