2021 marks seventy-one years since the beginning of the Korean War, a bloody conflict which saw the loss of nearly forty-thousand Americans and ten percent of the Korean population. Despite this massive loss of life and the physical decimation of the Korean peninsula, it is criminally under-researched. Its place in history, sandwiched between the catastrophic Second World War and the devastating Vietnam War, has caused it to be buried by the tragedies of its immediate predecessor and successor in time. However, during the Korean War peace talks, claims by communist forces that accused the American forces of violating the Geneva Convention took the world by storm, only for the false accusations to be forgotten in just a few generations.
In early 1951, as the United States and Chinese-North Korean forces were locked in the back-and-forth which would later characterize the Korean War, Chinese media made repeated claims that America was preparing biological weapons for use against the Chinese and North Korean people. The U.S. grant of immunity for Shiro Ishii, former director of Imperial Japan’s biological warfare center Unit 731, played a central role in these accusations; specifically, that the Japanese and American forces were collaborating in the production of bacterial weapons for use on the war front. This initial campaign culminated in a formal charge submitted to the United Nations by North Korea Foreign Minister Pak Hen En:
“Following in the path of the defeated and universally condemned Japanese war criminals, MacArthur, Ridgeway and abettors carried out this threat in the middle of December 1950 and January 1951. Several areas were simultaneously infected with small-pox sickness (...) after their liberation from American occupation. (UN Security Council 1951, S/2142/Rev 1)”
After a lull from July 1951 until early 1952, following outbreaks of cholera and plague in North Korea and Manchuria, Pak Hen En again submitted a protest with the United Nations, citing seven instances in which he alleged that enemy military aircraft had dropped insects infected with plague and cholera. This accuastion would be echoed by People’s Republic of China Premier Zhou Enlai just two days later.
In both instances, the accusations were immediately and vehemently denied by the United States government. What followed would be yet another back-and-forth between the communist and United States forces which would persist through the end of the war.
Four months after the second wave of allegations were made, the United States proposed to the United Nations Security Council that there should be an investigation of the reported attack sites, led by the International Red Cross. This proposal fell apart due to a Soviet veto, as did the resolution. Moscow blocked the idea due to the extensive U.S. influence within the Red Cross, and the ongoing perception that the United Nations was too obliging with western interests. This was a persistent concern since the United Nations’ refusal to remove the Republic of China representative in favor of a representative of the People’s Republic of China, against the wishes of the Soviet Union.
Instead, led by the communist-aligned World Peace Council, the International Scientific Commission performed their own investigation in mid-1952. That effort was headed by Dr. Joseph Needham, a British scientist who previously investigated the Japanese use of bioweapons during World War II. The commission’s report consists of sixty pages detailing the purported incidents in Korea and China, followed by over 600 pages of appendices which included eyewitness and epidemiologist testimony, and photos of the alleged bomb casings.
Despite never performing any independent field analysis, and only receiving evidence secondhand through Chinese government field staff, the ISC concluded that the accusations of biowarfare in the Korean War were factual. The document received immediate and unrelenting opposition by representatives of the United States and was also the subject of criticism from Western bacteriologists and virologists.
Notably, the document contained the statements of four captured U.S. airmen, who initially testified in support of their captors:
“As to when we first started to use germ bombs, it was about the first of the year, about 1 January, 1952, I should say, since that is when we were all reminded to look for “dud” bombs. It is probable that other outfits (...) started to use germ warfare at the same time. (First Lieut. Kenneth L Enoch, ISC pg 493)
I was forced to be the tool of these war mongers and made to drop germ bombs and do this awful crime against the people of Korea and the Chinese Volunteers. Because I am a soldier I must follow orders (...) from those imperialists on Wall Street. (First Lieut. John Quinn, ISC pg 537)”
In late 1952, over six months after the initial confessions, another pilot, Colonel Schwable of the United States Marine Corps, produced another admission after undergoing months of torture at the hands of his captors. Schwable, along with the four airmen featured in the ISC report, all recanted their confessions upon repatriation and it was concluded through trial that the confessions were made under extreme mental duress.
The purpose of these allegations remains murky even today because wartime political interests and the lingering international relations clouded the situation at hand. For instance, whether or not the claims of biological warfare were only intended as a defamation campaign against an enemy in battle, China still mobilized national vaccination campaigns during the Korean War. These vaccination drives suggested that, at least for some Chinese citizens or officials, the allegations were seen as terrifyingly real.
It should be noted, however, that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself retracted the claims shortly after Stalin’s death, in a statement to Mao Zedong:
“The Soviet Government and the Central Committee of the CPSU were misled. The spread in the press of information about the use by the Americans of bacteriological weapons in Korea was based on false information. The accusations against the Americans were fictitious.”
This powerful Soviet rebuttal of the claims further enforces the conclusion of most scholars today that the allegations were nothing more than political theater during one of the most destructive conflicts in modern history. This remains true despite details that remain unclear even today, such as who first instigated the claims and the fact that there has been no retraction of the allegations from the Chinese government.
Emalyn Atkins is a Research Associate Intern in Korean Studies with the Center for the National Interest. Image: Reuters.