Did the US use bioweapons in Korea?
By David Isenberg

Current events have brought a controversial 1998 book,The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea by Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, which alleges that the United States used biological weapons against North Korea, back into the news.

On January 27, Asia Times Online wrote in the Letters section: "The Endicott/Hagerman book was also reviewed by Stephen E Ambrose, one of America's most respected military historians, thus: 'This book is disturbing to an extreme degree. As prosecutors, Hagerman and Endicott present a strong case. They cannot be said to be dispassionate, but they are careful, even judicious. At a minimum their research and revelations raise questions about the possible use of biological warfare by the United States in the Korean War that must be answered before we indulge in further moral condemnation of Iraq's research and development of a germ-warfare capability.'"

At a time when the United States is threatening to lead a war against Iraq purportedly, in part, to rid that country of its biological weapons, the possibility that the US itself used biological weapons against North Korea brings into question the holier-than-thou stance of the George W Bush administration. However, numerous commentators have remarked that the Endicott/Hagerman book is not supported by the facts. These analysts cite evidence suggesting that some of the primary sources used by the authors were in fact deliberate lies made up by the Soviet Union as part of a propaganda campaign.

Consider this excerpt from a May 3, 1999, article in The Nation by Peter Pringle, a correspondent for the London Independent, who was sympathetic to the book:

"Endicott and Hagerman have not only raised the level of debate over the charges but also, apparently coincidentally, run headlong into the first 'official' documentary evidence from Communist sources strongly suggesting that the charges may have been Communist propaganda after all: In a total surprise last year, a dozen documents said to have been found in the Soviet presidential archives suddenly appeared in a Japanese newspaper [Yasuro Naito, 'The use of bacteriological weapons by US forces during the Korean war was fabrication by China and Korea: Uncovered by classified documents of the Former Soviet Union', Sankei Shimbun, January 8, 1998]. They suggest that in 1952, Moscow was behind a plot to blame the United States for using biological weapons in Korea when the Soviet leadership was perfectly aware that the American forces were doing no such thing."

Milton Leitenberg, a senior research fellow at the University of Maryland's Center for International Security Studies, published a 1998 study "The Korean War: Biological Warfare Resolved" that contained a number of Soviet archival documents from the Stalin era demonstrating that the Soviet leadership was aware that the Chinese and North Korean charges were a hoax. This knowledge, however, did not keep the Soviets from using the charges to pressure the United States.

A detailed analysis, "New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations" by Leitenberg, analyzing these archival documents was also published in the Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Similarly, a book review in May/June 1999 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a pro-arms-control publication, noted:

"There is, however, considerable evidence in the archives that the United States did not use such weapons during the war. The authors base their conclusion on eight central arguments, each of which can be refuted by archival evidence and reasonable counter-arguments."

And a June 27, 1999, New York Times review of the Endicott and Hagerman book by Ed Regis, the author of an acclaimed book on the past US biological-weapons program, noted:

"The authors acknowledge that after 20 years of research they have failed to turn up a single document in American archives that provides direct evidence for their claim. They therefore build a circumstantial case that relies heavily on documents provided by the North Koreans and the Chinese. In fact, the authors reproduce some of the nine Chinese photographs and captions, but they make no mention of the article in The Times, even though their bibliography cites a standard reference work by Milton Leitenberg that discusses the forgeries, mentions the experts by name and summarizes their conclusions. This is appalling.

"Carl Sagan used to say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The evidence Endicott and Hagerman present for their extraordinarily dubious claim is notable only for its weakness. The Chinese and North Koreans themselves had the means, motive and opportunity to fabricate evidence, and were known to rewrite history for propaganda purposes. Any plausible defense of the claim that the Americans were guilty of biological warfare in the Korean conflict must address the question of fabricated evidence. Endicott and Hagerman do not even raise it. If theirs is the best case that can be made for American germ warfare activities in China and Korea, it amounts to a dismissal of the charges and an exoneration of the accused."

And most recently an article "No Practical Capabilities: American Biological and Chemical Warfare Programs During the Korean War" by Conrad C Crane, published last year in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, concluded: "Though the American military services did try to increase their abilities in the fields of chemical and biological warfare during the Korean conflict, the American military forces possessed neither the ability, nor the will, to utilize offensive chemical and biological warfare in the manner described in Communist accusations."

Still, while the findings of Endicott and Hagerman may be in doubt, there is reason to question whether the United States has entirely clean hands when it comes to biological weapons. "Back to Bioweapons", an article published in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has kicked up a storm. It asserts that the reason the United States rejected the verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention in 2001 was that it was committed to continuing and expanding secret, offensively oriented "biodefense" programs. The authors conclude that the "United States appears to have embarked on a largely classified study, across several agencies, of biotech applications for the development of new bioweapons. The clandestine US programs indicate a willingness to ignore treaty law in favor of maintaining technological superiority in response to the emerging bioweapons threat."

A similar paper, "Defending Against Biodefence: The Need for Limits" by Barbara H Rosenberg, released in January by the Acronym Institute, wonders whether there are more secret US biodefense projects beyond the three revealed in a New York Times article on September 4, 2001. She claims that "all three projects had predecessors that have not yet come to light, most notably a DoD [Department of Defense] bomblet project run in the late 1990s at the army's Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland".

And last month in the Letters section, AToL contributor Sreeram Chaulia defended his article Press the patriotism button, baby, Jan 22, in part by noting that Endicott and Hagerman "draw on official US sources and extensive interviews with Chinese scientists who were involved in the Korean War. Their findings and my own strongly point to the conclusion that US planes dropped infected fleas, ticks and spiders in the Chorwan, Kumhwa and Pyongyang areas of North Korea during February, March and April of 1952, leading to mass outbreaks of plague and anthrax." Chaulia added that doubters "would do well to consult the Washington-based National Security Archive for more gruesome facts".

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Feb 13, 2003

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