• A sign meaning 'North Korea's answer' is seen at an anti-US rally in Pyongyang, North Korea, in September 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)
The US and North Korea have been to war before — it left millions dead.
Ben Winsor

12 Oct - 5:25 PM  UPDATED 6 DAYS AGO

The tension between North Korea and the United States over the rogue nation's increasingly sophisticated nuclear and missile capabilities has been dominated by military manoeuvring and escalating rhetoric.

US President Donald Trump has threatened North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with "fire and fury" and boasted of having the capability to "totally destroy" the country of 25 million people.

In response, North Korean representatives have said the US should be "beaten to death like a rabid dog", with threats to "reduce the US mainland [and its 323 million inhabitants] to ashes and darkness". 

North Korea's foreign minister said in October 2017 that the US president had "lit the wick of war" - and it's one North Korea is prepared for - with 1.1 million people in their military. 

But as national security strategists contemplate what a modern battle between the two countries might look like, for many North Koreans the current stalemate is part of a war which never really ended.


The war before the war

In June 1950 – following a tussle for influence on the Korean peninsula – North Korea invaded its southern neighbour, sparking a three-year proxy war which pitted South Korea’s ally, the US, against North Korea supporters China and the Soviet Union.

The Korean War remains one of the bloodiest in history, leaving upwards of two million people dead and reducing much of the Korean peninsula to rubble.

A 1951 parachute operation during the Korean War (Interim Archives/Getty Images).

Professor Charles Armstrong, an expert in Korean history at New York's Colombia University, says it is remarkable how little the war is mentioned in US discussions around the current standoff.

"When Trump says in front of the UN we will 'totally destroy' North Korea, he seems to have no awareness that the United States already once did almost totally destroy North Korea," he told SBS News.

Over 17,000 Australians also served in the war, with 340 killed and 29 becoming prisoners of war.


A history of violence

Before the war's end, US-backed South Korean forces had dropped so many bombs and napalm that they had run out of effective targets.

US General Douglas MacAuthur – a WWII commander who said he had seen "as much blood and disaster as any living man" – told Congress in 1951 that witnessing the scale of death and destruction in Korea had caused him to vomit.

"It just curdled my stomach the last time I was there," the World War II veteran said. "I have never seen such devastation."

It was a war in which farms and factories were accepted as valid military targets, and refugees were massacred out of fear that enemies hid amongst them.

And it's a war that technically never ended.

Both sides signed an armistice in 1953 pending a final peace agreement, but no such deal was ever reached.

Jean Lee, one of the few American journalists to have ever reported out of Pyongyang, says that understanding the war is important to understanding North Korea's continued hostility towards the country.

In the US, the Korean War is referred to as 'the forgotten war' – obscured by the infamous World War II and the Vietnam War - the first conflict to have widespread TV coverage.

"The war was so brutal that people wanted to forget it," Ms Lee told SBS from Washington DC.

"I constantly have to remind people the war didn't technically end, and that’s part of what’s feeding this North Korean aggression," she says.

"We think it's coming out of nowhere, but no, there's actually a historical root to it, whether or not it's justified is another issue."

Though 'forgotten' in America, the war is burned into the national psyche of North Korea – and not by accident.


Rebranding the conflict

The disastrous battle – sparked by North Korea's invasion – has been recast by the North Korean government as the 'Victorious Fatherland Liberation War'.

In the regime's telling, only the North is truly liberated. Today's South Korea still has 23,000 US troops stationed there.

"It is very important for maintaining the legitimacy of the regime," Professor Armstrong says. "It portrays itself as the only force capable of defending the country."

And the regime goes to great lengths to ensure the war is remembered.

Ms Lee described a visit to the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities in North Korea  as "essentially an anti-American mecca" featuring cavernous halls and life-size dioramas displaying war scenes in gruesome detail.

"It is designed to shock and horrify schoolchildren into fearing the possibility of aggression from the US," she said.

What's more, Ms Lee said every kindergarten she visited in Pyongyang had a room dedicated to anti-American propaganda and war-time imagery.

“It’s always shocking to see the violent imagery around children,” she said.

Right from childhood, it would seem, the government has woven the Korean War into the country’s broader rhetoric.

“North Koreans have an ancient history of fearing and repulsing outside invaders – whether it be various tribes from China or Japanese occupying forces – and the modern regime has constructed an ideology that builds upon that history,” Ms Lee says.

“So it’s all part of this very carefully crafted strategy which revolves around perpetuating fear of America, the threat from America, and Kim Jong Un’s role of defending the country with nuclear weapons.”

“From a very early age they’re trained to attack and to hate America.”

North Korea at the tipping point: why we’ve just seen a gamechanger on the Korean peninsula
There’s a reason analysts with a grim sense of humour call North Korea the Land of Lousy Choices. With diplomatic talks long stalled, and sanctions not having any apparent impact, the US's options seem to be narrowing: accept the reality of a nuclear armed North Korea, or fight a terrible war that would kill hundreds of thousands to stop that happening.

North Korea, the US and Guam explained