The pause button was hit on the Korean War 64 years
ago Thursday. Its legacy of destruction lives on.
In just three years, the war claimed the lives of millions of people
and forever changed the Korean Peninsula.
"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," said former US air force
commander General Curtis LeMay in 1988, during an interview for
an Air Force military history volume.
By the time the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, North
Korea -- which began the war with a population of 9.6 million --
had suffered an estimated 1.3 million civilian and military
casualties, according to figures cited by the US Air Force. South
Korea, meanwhile, suffered up to 3 million civilian and 225,000
military casualties, from a total population of around 20.2 million
The war was one that many were reluctant to join, coming as it did
just five years after the end of World War II.
General Douglas MacArthur, a legendary figure in the US military
who went on to become the commander-in-chief of the United
Nations Command at the onset of the war, said during a
congressional hearing in 1951 that he had never seen such
"I shrink with horror that I cannot express in words -- at this
continuous slaughter of men in Korea," MacArthur said. "I have
seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and
it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there."
More than 33,000 Americans were killed in the fighting and
600,000 from the Chinese military -- who joined to protect their
fellow communist neighbors -- were left dead or missing.
The Chinese and the Americans went home after the fighting, but
North Koreans stayed amid the ruins of the battle -- their entire
infrastructure decimated, their towns and cities completely
Though the armistice date holds some significance in the United
States -- the US will start the process of banning Americans from
travel to North Korea Thursday -- the legacy of destruction was
and remains a key piece of propaganda for Kim Il Sung, his son
Kim Jong Il and his grandson Kim Jong Un, who now rules the
The 'original sin'
For North Koreans, destruction came from above. The conflict is
seen as the first large-scale air campaign conducted by the US Air
American fighter jets dropped approximately 635,000 tons of
explosives on North Korea (that's more in three years than during
the entire Pacific theater of World War II), including 32,000 tons of
napalm, according to historian Charles Armstrong.
That continued fear of deadly US military airstrikes helps the North
Korean government to portray Americans as a far-away
caricature, a faceless enemy that leveled their country and could
do so again.
"The bombing is treated as the American original sin in the (North
Korean) propaganda and it certainly was savage," according to
Robert E. Kelly, a professor of political science at South Korea's
Pusan National University. "It's become a political tool to justify
the permanent emergency state. Japanese colonization is used the
A 'Sea of Blood'
Most historians say the war started when the eldest Kim invaded
the south, but North Korea teaches its citizens the United States
started the war -- and only the Kim family can protect them.
The North Korean state attempts to engender a visceral hatred for
the United States: Kindergarteners draw anti-American martial
images. The news media releases videos of the US military in
flames. The June 25 anniversary of the start of the Korean War is
"the day of struggle against US imperialism."
The man who led them through war, Kim Il Sung, is revered as a
god in North Korea and credited with countless accomplishments:
most notably inventing the country's guiding ideology, juche --
which means self-reliance -- and liberating the Korean Peninsula
from Japanese occupation.
Works of poetry and art are also attributed to him -- and lionized
by North Koreans.
An example of this is the play, "The Sea of Blood." Considered
among the country's most important cultural works, it tells the
story of a poor farmer who joins the fight against the Japanese
occupation. He is killed, but his wife, who joins the Communist
resistance, goes on to help defeat the Japanese.
The play -- which is quite violent and carries strong ethnocentric
undertones, North Korea analysts say -- is a key juche text, due to
its courageous, independent and patriotic protagonist.
The juche ideology has been hammered into the North Korean
psyche since Kim first introduced it during the 1950s. Works of
propaganda like "Sea of Blood" -- and the fact that it's nearly
impossible for those inside the country to get information from the
outside world -- help reinforce the underdog, survivor mentality
that is at the heart of the juche idea.
That survivor mentality extends into government, too. The
country's constitution states that "national defense is the supreme
duty and honor of citizens," and the country is governed by the
"songun" -- or military-first -- policy, which places the armed
forces above all else.
When it comes to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, the
Kim regime looks at leaders like Moammar Gadhafi -- who gave
up his pursuit of nuclear weapons for security guarantees and
sanctions relief but was eventually ousted and killed -- and
believes those weapons are the key to regime survival.
So the country spends an incredibly high percentage of its budget
on defense, and tells its people that the expenditures are crucial to
preventing a US invasion.
With the country's apparent successful test of an intercontinental
ballistic missile earlier this month, they may be getting close to
"Now that the DPRK's (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,
North Korea's official name) capability to strike the very heart of
the US at any given time has been physically proved, the US would
find it more difficult to dare attack the DPRK," the North Korean
Foreign Ministry said in a statement shortly after the missile
"This is the only way to defend oneself and safeguard the dignity of
the nation in the present hostile world where the law of the jungle
By Joshua Berlinger CNN with James Griffiths' contribution