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Yes, Mr. Newman, the North Koreans Are Still Upset About That War

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Awful as the story of the abrupt downfall and execution of the uncle of North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, may be, let's hope it doesn't erase the memory of the Merrill Newman episode.  Newman, you may recall, is the 85 year old Korean War veteran from Palo Alto, California recently detained for over a month by the North Korean government.  After securing his release by reading a government-authored statement detailing his crimes and errors, he came home and told us what he really thought.  He says he's "come to the conclusion that I just didn't understand that, for the North Korean regime, the Korean War isn't over."  And now he knows that "the North Koreans still feel much more anger about the war than I realized. With the benefit of hindsight I should have been more sensitive to that."  
Newman, it seems, had assisted a South Korean guerilla organization called Kuwol which, in the view of Korean War scholar Bruce Cumings, was "possibly the most hated group of people in the North, except for out-and-out spies and traitors from their own side."   Now, if you are outraged that the North Koreans would arrest an octogenarian tourist, well okay.   At the same time, it would seem that common sense, if nothing else, would demand that someone with Newman's past at least know something about the current situation where he was going and, better still, understand what he had been a part of sixty years ago.
For one thing, Merrill's first statement is literally true: Although an armistice agreement ended fighting on July 27, 1953, a peace treaty between North and South Korea has never been signed and the countries formally remain in a state of war.  More important than this technicality, however, is the "anger about the war" that so surprised Newman -- and the reasons for it.  
The US provided nearly ninety percent of the 341,000 member United Nations force that entered the Korean War on the side of the South Korean government.  A Soviet veto that might have been expected to nix such an operation did not occur.  The Soviet Union was boycotting the UN to protest the organization's awarding China's seat to Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government-in-exile rather than Mao Tse Tung's Communist government that actually controlled the country.  To the extent that the Korean War is mentioned at all in the US today, it is usually in the context of the lack of attention given those who served in the military there, particularly in comparison with that lavished on the "Greatest Generation" of World War II veterans.
The war's impact upon North Korea was far different, as Newman apparently only recently learned.  The U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of bombs and 35,000 tons of napalm on Korea -- more than used against Japan in the entire Pacific theater in the Second World War.  According to Cumings, chair of the history department of the University of Chicago, "we carpet-bombed the north for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties," apparently emboldened by the notion that "they are savages, so that gives us the right to shower napalm on innocents."  Air Force General Curtis LeMay claimed, "we burned down every town in North Korea."  Damage to urban areas surpassed that of Germany and Japan in the prior decade.  The North claimed only two modern structures survived in Pyongyang, its capital.  Targets included irrigation dams on the Yalu River, aimed at causing starvation among the civilian population.   Deaths in the North may have run as high as two million, a casualty percentage rivaling that of the Soviet Union in the Second World War.
Cumings has written of the American view that "Korea is just one among several wars best forgotten."  And in that effort we may say our country has been largely successful.  But as Merrill Newman learned under unpleasant circumstances, our national compulsion toward amnesia is not shared by those on the other end of these "best forgotten" wars.  
For a rough measure of the war's impact on North Korea we might perhaps multiply 9/11 by five hundred.  So, frightening as North Korea's current leadership may be to us, the reality of what our country did to them -- and what it could do again -- is probably far more frightening to North Koreans.  If the Merrill Newman incident should give even a few Americans a glimpse of how they see us -- well, that wouldn't be the worst thing.  
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Tom Gallagher was a Bernie Sanders delegate elected from California's 12th Congressional District. He is the author of "The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex."

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