In unforgettable fashion, Hanley, a Pulitzer Prize winner, tells the story of the Korean War, one of the most savage conflicts in history, through eyewitness accounts of 20 people, most of them victims. An estimated three million died during the three years of fighting, about two-thirds of them civilians. “I firmly believe Korea is as close to hell as anyone can get!” said one American infantryman who had been haunted by his role in the mass slaughter of refugees at Nogun-ri.
Park Sun-yong, clinging to her Bible and wounded in the arm and torso, was one who survived the Nogun-ri massacre. Her two toddlers, a boy and a girl, were killed. “What have we done to deserve this?” she asks. North Koreans had infiltrated columns of fleeing South Koreans, and G.I.s, following orders, were indiscriminately shooting at the panicked crowds, even when they posed no threat.
As Hanley tells us, Korean farmers reported seeing “ghost flames” or “spirit fires” over the fields where people perished. Phosphorous from rotting bones, mixed with rain, can shimmer in moonlight, but according to local lore, a ball of light, hon bul, leaves the body upon death.
In Korea, two mighty coalitions were locked in “the Cold War’s first armed collision.” The fighting stopped in 1953 with only an armistice, not a peace treaty. And as we see through the anguish of its survivors, the “hidden war” is still not over.
KIM JONG UN AND THE BOMB
Survival and Deterrence in North Korea
By Ankit Panda
416 pp. Oxford University. $27.95.
With determination and deceit, three generations of the Kim family of North Korea have built an arsenal of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. In November 2017 Kim Jong-un declared that his regime had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
The boast, as this book details, capped a program spanning perhaps as many as six decades. It’s not clear that the North has the heat shielding necessary to protect a payload re-entering the atmosphere — but it nonetheless appears that Kim can now detonate a thermonuclear device over any portion of the United States.