64 years later, North still dig­ging up bombs

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Eric Tal­madge

KOREA»In the 10 years he has been dig­ging up ord­nance HAMHUNG, NORTH from the Korean War, Maj. Jong Il Hyon has lost five col­leagues to ex­plo­sions. He car­ries a lighter one gave him be­fore he died. He also bears a scar on his left cheek from a bomb dis­posal mis­sion gone wrong.

Sixty-four years af­ter it ended, the war is still giv­ing up thou­sands of bombs, mor­tars and pieces of live am­mu­ni­tion. Vir­tu­ally all of it is Amer­i­can, but Jong noted that more than a dozen other coun­tries fought on the U.S. side, and ev­ery now and then their bombs will turn up as well.

“The ex­perts say it will take 100 years to clean up all of the un­ex­ploded ord­nance, but I think it will take much longer,” Jong said at a con­struc­tion site on the out­skirts of Hamhung, North Korea’s sec­ond-largest city. Work­ers un­earthed a rusted but still po­ten­tially deadly mor­tar round in Fe­bru­ary. Last Oc­to­ber, 370 more were found in a nearby el­e­men­tary school play­ground.

Ac­cord­ing to Jong, his bomb squad is one of nine in North Korea, one for each prov­ince. His unit alone han­dled 2,900 left­over ex­plo­sives — in­clud­ing bombs, mor­tars and live ar­tillery shells — last year. He said this year it al­ready has dis­posed of about 1,200.

For­tu­nately, there have been only a few in­juries in the past few years. But Jong said an 11-year-old boy who found a bomb in May lost sev­eral fin­gers when it went off while he was play­ing with it.

North Korea is one of many coun­tries still deal­ing with the ex­plo­sive legacy of ma­jor wars. Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia, Laos and even Ja­pan have huge amounts of un­ex­ploded ord­nance left to clean up.

The three-year Korean War, which ended in what was sup­posed to be a tem­po­rary armistice on July 27, 1953, was one of the most bru­tal ever fought.

Vir­tu­ally all of the 22 ma­jor cities in North Korea were se­verely dam­aged and hun­dreds of thou­sands of civil­ians killed by U.S. sat­u­ra­tion bomb­ing. The ton­nage of bombs dropped on the North was about the same as the to­tal dropped by the U.S. against Ja­pan dur­ing World War II. North Korea is prob­a­bly sec­ond only to Cam­bo­dia as the most heav­ily bombed coun­try in his­tory.

By 1952, the bomb­ing was so com­plete that the U.S. Air Force had ef­fec­tively run out of worth­while tar­gets.

North Kore­ans claim 400,000 bombs were dropped on Py­ongyang alone, roughly one bomb for ev­ery res­i­dent at the time, and that only two mod­ern build­ings in the cap­i­tal were left stand­ing. All told, the U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea dur­ing the war, most of it in the North, in­clud­ing with 32,500 tons of napalm.

Twelve to 15 per­cent of the North’s pop­u­la­tion was killed in the war.

Charles Arm­strong, a his­to­rian at Columbia Univer­sity, said the ex­pan­sion of sat­u­ra­tion bomb­ing in North Korea marked some­thing of a turn­ing point for the United States and was fol­lowed by the use of an even heav­ier ver­sion dur­ing the Viet­nam War.

“To this day, the North Korean govern­ment and me­dia point to the Amer­i­can bomb­ing as a war crime and a ma­jor jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the con­tin­ued mo­bi­liza­tion of the North Korean peo­ple — as well as the devel­op­ment of nu­clear weapons — in de­fense against fu­ture at­tacks,” he said.

Arm­strong noted that the Hamhung area and the nearby port of Hung­nam were hit par­tic­u­larly hard by U.S. bombers be­cause they were an in­dus­trial cen­ter and home to the largest ni­tro­gen fer­til­izer plant in Asia.

Ni­tro­gen fer­til­izer can be used to make ex­plo­sives, so the U.S. Air Force oblit­er­ated the area in late De­cem­ber 1950. Later re­built, the fer­til­izer plant is still func­tion­ing to­day and re­mains one of Hamhung’s most fa­mous land­marks.

The bomb squads re­spond to calls when ord­nance is dis­cov­ered, check con­struc­tion sites be­fore ex­ca­va­tion work be­gins and ed­u­cate peo­ple, es­pe­cially chil­dren, about the dan­gers. Jong’s squad, which cov­ers South Ham­gy­ong prov­ince, has nine mem­bers. The largest, in Kang­won, along the South Korean bor­der, has 15.

One bomb was un­cov­ered in March by farm­ers dig­ging an ir­ri­ga­tion canal near a rail­way that runs through Hamhung from Py­ongyang to the north­east­ern port of Chongjin.

“This rail­way was here dur­ing the war, so it was a tar­get,” said Yom Hak Chol, man­ager of the fourth work team of the Po­hang co­op­er­a­tive farm. He was work­ing in the field when the bomb was found and watched the bomb squad re­move it.

Pho­tos by Wong Maye-E, The As­so­ci­ated Press

A man walks past a con­struc­tion site on the out­skirts of Hamhung, North Korea’s sec­ond-largest city, where con­struc­tion work­ers un­earthed a rusted but still po­ten­tially deadly mor­tar round in Fe­bru­ary.

A mem­ber of a bomb squad holds up a pho­to­graph of an un­ex­ploded bomb found near a rail­way.

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