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A Chinese admission of false Korean War allegations of biological weapon use by the United States.

A LITTLE-REMEMBERED ASPECT OF KOREAN WAR HISTORY IS THE ALLEGATION by North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union that the United States had used biological weapons on an enormous scale over both China and North Korea during the war. Despite the public disclosure in 1998 of Soviet Central Committee documents declaring the allegations to have been fraudulent, China--and North Korea much more noisily--still maintains the charges. The issue is of great importance to those concerned with arms control and allegations of actual use of weapons of mass destruction.

Those charges have now been refuted in a striking posthumous publication written by Wu Zhili, who was Director of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army Health Division during the Korean War. Wu wrote a brief memoir in September 1997 that was found among his papers after he died in 2008. It was published in a Chinese journal only in November 2013; an English translation first became available in April 2015 (Wu 2013). (1) In 1952, Wu was critically involved in the Chinese government's manipulations that produced the Korean War biological weapons allegations. His own testimonial contains a second one as well, by Huang Kecheng, chief of staff of the Chinese Army during the Korean War and later secretary-general of the Central Military Commission. Wu Zhili's testimonial overturns everything previously published in a Chinese source. In addition, the full text of the cable from Mao Zedong to Josef Stalin on February 21, 1952, recently published by Russia's State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI), sheds more light on China's responsibility for the allegations.

The Charges

Two years before the war began, Soviet propaganda charged that the United States was testing biological weapons (plague) against the native Inuit peoples of Alaska. In Soviet reporting on the 1949 trial in Khabarovsk of participants in the Japanese World War II biological weapons program, Pravda stated that the United States was "preparing for new crimes against humanity," as in biological warfare. Chinese broadcasts reported that the US government was collaborating with Lt. General Ishii Shiro, one of the major figures responsible for Japan's use of biological weapons in China, ostensibly in preparation for subsequent use of biological weapons by the United States against China. In March 1951, China charged that General Douglas MacArthur "is now engaged in large scale production of bacteriological weapons for use against the Korean Army and people" (Leitenberg 1998, 188). (2)

The first allegations of biological weapons use by the United States were made on May 8, 1951. North Korea's foreign minister claimed that the United States had used biological weapons between December 1950 and January 1951, and was spreading smallpox in North Korea. Chinese statements were made on March 14; May 19, 24, and 25; and June 22. Between March 5 and May 13, 1951, the Chinese government also charged on ten occasions that the United States was using chemical weapons in the Korean War. North Korean statements continued into July, and then also stopped.

The major campaign alleging US biological weapons use, however, began on February 22, 1952. The North Korean foreign minister again issued an official statement addressed to the United Nations Secretariat, charging that the United States had made multiple air drops over his country in January and February of infected insects containing plague, cholera, and other diseases. Two days later, China's foreign minister Zhou Enlai supported the North Korean charges and on March 8, expanded them to claim that the United States had sent 448 aircraft on no fewer than sixty-eight occasions between February 29 and March 5 to drop germ-carrying insects over Northeast China. The charges increased for months to come, with Chinese news agencies reporting many thousands of US air sorties to drop biological agents over China and North Korea. Nevertheless, on no occasion did the Chinese or North Koreans claim to have shot down a US aircraft carrying biological weapons or the delivery systems for them.

Soviet representatives in the United Nations took up the charges on behalf of the Chinese and North Koreans. The charges were immediately and repeatedly denied by US delegates at the United Nations, by US secretary of state Dean Acheson, and by the senior US military commanders in Korea. The Chinese and North Koreans rejected on-site investigations by the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross on various dubious and propagandistic pretexts.

The Chinese and North Korean governments hosted their own "investigations" carried out by Soviet proxy organizations. The first was carried out by a team sent by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, a group belonging to the World Peace Council, an organization subordinate to a department of the Soviet Central Committee. It visited North Korea on March 5-19, 1952, within days after the 1952 allegations began. The group released two reports in Beijing on March 31 and April 2, 1952. These repeated the North Korean and Chinese charges verbatim and described the alleged biological weapons attacks "as an act of genocide and a particularly odious crime against humanity" (United Nations Security Council 1952). (3) The Chinese government also established its own investigating body (the Commission of the Medical Headquarters of the Korean People's Army on the Use of Bacteriological Weapons), which reportedly began its work in the first days of March 1952. (4) This extensively staffed organization gathered evidence for the more significant International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China, again organized by the Soviet-proxy World Peace Council. It is commonly referred to as the ISC, or the Needham Commission, as it was chaired by the eminent British scientist, Marxist, and sinophile, Dr. Joseph Needham.

The most instrumental member of the ten-person ISC was Dr. Nikolay Zhukov-Verezhnikov, a Soviet microbiologist and also a KGB general. He was in fact the only bacteriologist in the group and had served as the chief medical expert for the Soviet trial in Khabarovsk mentioned earlier. However, as Wu Zhili explains (Wu 2013), the role that the doctor played in Korea was far more instrumental than that. The ISC was present in China and North Korea between June 25 and August 31, 1952, and its massive 669-page report was published in Beijing in 1952. The most significant aspect of both the jurists' and ISC "investigations" is that neither group did any field investigating of its own. They were presented with "evidence" by the Chinese and North Koreans, which they accepted on faith. They did not attempt to corroborate anything. Needham plainly acknowledged this in press interviews following the release of the ISC report.

The ISC report was strongly criticized by individual bacteriologists, entomologists, epidemiologists, and virologists in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia for pairing types of insects with pathogens that were not carried by such insects, for claiming the use of insect vectors in subzero freezing conditions when such insects would not be present and would freeze in moments, and on other technical grounds. In subsequent years, other criticisms and admissions were even more telling. Tibor Meray, a Hungarian journalist who had spent the Korean War years inside North Korea, reported that North Korean peasants told doctors at a Hungarian field hospital that paper packets of insects had been placed in the snow by Chinese soldiers. The North Korean deputy minister of health also told Meray that North Korea had been informed of germ attacks by "reports from Chinese Volunteers" (Meray 1957). (5) Meray also reported that during party-to-party discussions in Beijing between Chinese officials and those of Poland and Yugoslavia in 1956, the Chinese participants stated that "they considered the whole Korean War to have been a mistake into which they had been pushed by Stalin. And that they believed the accusations about germ warfare to have been without foundation" (Leitenberg 2000, 162; emphasis added). In the 1990s, one of the Chinese cease-fire negotiators in 1953 told a historian, in reference to the biological weapons allegations, that "it was all bullshit." (6)

The Retreat from the Allegations

In January 1998, twelve Soviet-era documents were obtained from the archive of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) Central Committee (Leitenberg 1998). The first one, dated February 21, 1952 (one day before the North Korean foreign minister's public statement), is only a small fragment of Mao's message to Stalin, reporting that the US used biological weapons, "delivered by aircraft and artillery." The remaining eleven documents all date from between April 13 and June 2, 1953, the month immediately following the death of Stalin. They are of three kinds: messages from the CPSU Central Committee to Mao or Kim Il-sung, the North Korean leader; messages to the Soviet ambassador or senior military officer in Beijing or Pyongyang or replies from them reporting on their conversations with Mao or Kim; and internal memoranda of the CPSU Central Committee. These documents were a part of the post-Stalin struggle for leadership between Lavrenti Beria and Nikita Khrushchev. The documents were subsequently privately authenticated by multiple former Soviet military and civilian officials in Moscow.

The seventh document dated May 2, 1953, a Resolution of the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers, addressed to Mao, brusquely states,
   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.... Soviet workers responsible for participation in the
   fabrication of the so-called "proof" of the use of bacteriological
   weapons will receive severe punishment.

Other of the documents detailed exactly how Soviet military personnel serving in North Korea assisted in that fabrication of evidence. The ninth document is a telegram from the Soviet ambassador in Beijing to Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov reporting on conversations with Mao and Zhou Enlai on May 12, 1953, during which Mao (falsely) blamed the allegations on reports from Chinese frontline commanders in North Korea. Document number 11 is a telegram to Moscow from Lt. General V N. Razuvayev, Soviet ambassador to North Korea and chief Soviet military adviser to its army. It reports on discussions with Pak Chang-ok, secretary of the North Korea party central committee, who
   expressed great surprise at the actions and positions of V. N.
   Razuvayev.... We were convinced that everything was known in
   Moscow. We thought that setting off this campaign would give great
   assistance to the cause of the struggle against American
   imperialism. In his turn, Pak Chang-ok did not exclude the
   possibility that the bombs and containers were thrown from Chinese
   planes, and [that] there were no infections.

US Policy

In the years since the Korean War a pro and con literature appeared regarding the biological weapons allegations. Those analysts who supported the old Chinese and North Korean charges were without exception of strong left-wing political sympathies. On the other side, at least a dozen authors tried to deduce why the Chinese, North Koreans, and Soviets had made the false allegations and what benefits they sought from them. There were nearly as many postulated reasons as there were authors (Leitenberg 2000). Within the US government such analyses began almost immediately after the charges were made: the first Special National Intelligence Estimate on the subject was produced as early as March 25, 1952 (CIA 1952).

The first official US statement of biological weapons policies and capabilities appeared months before the Korean War began: National Security Council (NSC) paper 62, dated February 1, 1950. It states that "chemical, biological and radiological weapons will not be used by the United States except in retaliation" (NSC 62 1950). (7) This policy remained in force throughout the Korean War and was confirmed, word for word, in NSC 147, on April 2, 1953, which stated that it "appl[ied] to UN operations, 1952-1953" (US Department of State 1953). These national policy determinations were, however, not publicly disclosed. The policy was not changed until March 15, 1956, when NSC 5062/1 permitted first use of chemical or biological weapons by US military forces, but only with presidential approval (Glennon et al. 1990, 242-268). In theory, official policy might be violated by covert operations, but this did not take place as regards biological weapons use in the Korean War.

Evidence that there was no violation of these NSC policies during the Korean War includes President Harry Truman's reply to a letter from Congressman Robert Kastenmeier dated July 25, 1969: "I wish to state categorically that I did not amend any Presidential order in force regarding biological weapons nor did I at any time give my approval to its use" (Truman 1969). (8) Supporting this conclusion is an affidavit that Brigadier General H. L. Hillyard, secretary to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided as evidence during a trial in April 1959, stating that

after a diligent search no record or entry has been found to exist in the records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff which discloses that the President or any authority superior to the Secretary of Defense, acting at the discretion of the President, did therein at any time, either expressly or impliedly during, authorize, consent to, or permit any Armed Force, or any element thereof, to use or employ any form of toxic chemical warfare or biological warfare during the period stated above. (9) (Hillyard 1959)

After 1945, the United States neither produced nor procured any biological munitions until the end of 1951. The United States then produced wheat rust, an antiplant agent meant for use against the wheat crops of the USSR. (10) It cannot cause any human disease. Neither China nor North Korea ever alleged that the US had used this agent. The second biological weapons agent that the United States produced was a human pathogen, but it was not ready until the end of 1954, long after the Korean War was over. It was for the organism Brucella suis, which produces the incapacitating disease brucellosis (US Department of the Army 1977). Again, brucellosis was not one of the diseases that China or North Korea ever charged the United States with spreading. Yet Chinese and North Korean official sources still maintain the old allegations and repeat them in books and statements and through the publications of proxy groups. (11)

The Refutations from China

Wu Zhili's posthumous publication begins, "It has already been 44 years [in 1997] since the armistice of the Korean War, but as for the worldwide sensation of 1952: How indisputable is the bacteriological war of the American imperialists? The case is one of false alarm" (Casey 2015). (12)

Wu begins his narrative on January 29, 1952. There is no mention of the North Korean and Chinese allegations of 1951. On that day a telegram arrived from one of the Chinese divisions in North Korea that some eighty insects, ticks, and fleas had been found in the snow among the trenches. A telegram was sent that day to People's Liberation Army (PLA) Commander Peng Dehuai, to the party Central Committee, and to "every unit to alert them and require timely reports of any similar situations. At that time almost all units sent telegrams of similar discoveries (within two months there were close to a thousand reports)." Wu's laboratory found no pathogenic bacteria were on these insects and ticks. Wu and his assistants also could "not discover people who had died suddenly or suspiciously fallen ill." Wu also considered the facts that severe winter was not the time to carry out biological weapons, that US military trenches were "not more than ten meters away" from Chinese and North Korean trenches, that Korea "already had an epidemic of lice-borne contagious diseases," and that every North Korean house contained flies. He came to the conclusion that one could not prove that the United States was carrying out biological warfare. One of his colleagues agreed, saying, "I think it's a false alarm." Paradoxically, at that same moment, a telegram arrived from the Central Committee saying that "the enemy had not carried out biological warfare, but that we could still take advantage of this to reinforce health work."

Wu reported his views to one of the deputy commanders of the Chinese forces. He was advised to inform Peng Dehuai. Wu dispatched a telegram to Peng, who requested him to come to headquarters. Wu's North Korean counterpart, the chief of the Korean People's Army Disease Prevention Bureau, was also unable to produce evidence of biological weapons. Wu briefed Peng and twelve members of his staff. Peng's response was shocking, and an ostensible death sentence: "Our health director is an American imperialist operative and speaks on behalf of the enemy." However, after an intermission to consult with his staff, Peng returned to say that Wu should keep his job, and that one of Peng's deputy commanders would be his superior officer. The same night Wu received a telephone call from the Soviet chief of staff at Peng's headquarters who said, "Stalin has asked whether bacteriological warfare is really occurring." Wu replied, "Go ask Commander Peng."

The remaining portions of Wu's paper are divided between his explanations of his work to protect the health of the Chinese military forces in North Korea and the tasks carried out to make it appear that the United States was using biological weapons. One of those tasks involved hosting the three visiting commissions: China's own, the jurists, and Needham's ISC. Regarding the ISC, Wu remarked that "although they believed that the American imperialists conducted biological warfare, we could not produce proof of the issue. Soviet Academician Zhukov was entrusted [with the task] by Stalin." The ISC returned to Beijing and presented a report to Mao. According to Wu, Mao replied, "I see that the American imperialists are actually engaging in bacteriological warfare." However, according to the 1988 book by Halliday and Cumings, Mao said, "Don't make too much of all this. They've tried using biochemical warfare, but it hasn't been too successful. What are all these uninfected insects they are dropping?" (1988, 85).

Wu euphemistically remarks of the Chinese commission that "of course it fully cooperated [with the fraud]." Perhaps what Stalin was really asking in his phone call was whether the United States was doing anything in addition to what Soviet personnel in North Korea were doing to assist the fraud. In contrast to all the commission reports, Wu's own staff could find no bacteria and no sick people due to biological weapons in all of 1952. Only salmonella-type organisms were discovered, but no cholera and no plague. One Chinese army lieutenant refused to lie to the ISC about where he had found fleas, telling Wu, "Chairman Mao taught him not to lie. He was unable to move. What to do? Only to persuade him to submit to the current needs of the struggle against the enemy.... As for the plague, that was easy, we [could] cause it to appear." However, it took a trip of five days to return with two tubes of plague cultures from Shenyang in China. In regard to the "confessions" by US airmen that they had dropped biological weapons, a key part of Chinese propaganda and of the ISC report, Wu commented sarcastically, "I really admire the persuasion work of our personnel in the prisoner-of-war camps."

Wu Zhili reported personally to Zhou Enlai three times in Beijing. He writes that when the cable from the Soviet central committee arrived in May 1953 (which Wu erroneously describes as using his own phrase, "false alarm," whereas it actually refers to "false" and "fictitious" information), "Premier Zhou immediately sought out PLA Chief of Staff Huang Kecheng and deputy commander Hong Xuezhi and asked, 'Have you been up to tricks?' Hong answered 'Yes, otherwise we wouldn't have had anything to report.'" But Zhou must have known that since February 1952. Wu then claimed that "Premier Zhou promptly ordered a retraction. Afterwards China did not raise the matter again." That cannot be true. An official history of the Korean War written by Chinese military historians continues to repeat the biological weapons allegations (Shen and Meng 1988). (13) So do two significant papers published in 2008 and 2010 that are discussed below; so too does a Chinese museum exhibit in Harbin. I am not aware of any public Chinese government retraction to this date.

Wu then describes a real retraction by Huang Kecheng, but made only to Wu in private:
   When he was sick, Huang Kecheng asked me to pass his opinion to the
   comrades at the Academy of Military Sciences who were editing an
   encyclopedia: "The American imperialists did not engage in
   bacteriological warfare in Korea. Right now the two countries'
   relationship is not bad, and it would be inappropriate to keep
   talking about this issue." When they heard this, they sent someone
   to ask if there had been bacteriological warfare after all. I only
   said that we do not have enough evidence. This has been my silent
   regret for decades. There has been no other.

Huang died on December 28, 1986, and so this conversation presumably took place sometime in middle or late 1986. Unfortunately, when the military historians came to talk to Wu, he lost his nerve and provided an ambiguous reply. When Wu apologized to Huang, Huang replied, "You don't need to feel this way; this was a political struggle! Furthermore you had expressed your views on bacteriological warfare from the beginning. It was not an easy situation." Nevertheless, Wu regretted his failure for the rest of his life. Both the aforementioned Chinese military histories were published after Huang's retraction. Whether the military historians would have been allowed by higher Chinese political and military authorities to write anything differently, we will never know.

Wu Zhili wrote his memoir eleven years after his exchange with Huang and never sought to publish it during his lifetime. He ended the memoir on a note of belated remorse: "I think that there will be a day in history to speak clearly about this incident. Now that I am an 83-year-old man who knows the facts and is no longer on duty, it is fitting to speak out; the bacteriological war of 1952 was a false alarm." However, if there was any "false alarm" at all, it can only have lasted for the week or so between January 29 and Wu's report to Peng Dehuai. From that point on, it was active fraud and disinformation.

Two additional papers of importance were published in China in 2008 and 2010. The author of both papers, Qu Aiguo, was at the time of writing a senior colonel affiliated with the PLA Academy of Military Science History. Although the conclusions of these papers are quite different from Wu's, they mesh with his memoir and provide additional surprising information (Qu 2008, 2010).

Qu begins both papers by referring specifically to the 1998 Leitenberg and Weathersby papers in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin and providing an extremely brief rendering of their contents. To my knowledge, that is the first time such information has appeared in the open public literature in China. Qu states that "some scholars in China made a new interpretation" of the Korean War biological weapons allegations and that "they believe that the decision of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee is based on the false judgment from the Volunteer Army." They further believe that "the anti-germ war is a kind of 'political propaganda' launched by China, North Korea and the Soviet Union." Qu never identifies these "scholars in China," and whether he is referring to Wu Zhili or others remains unknown. He then states that he disagrees with this view.

Qu argues that the Soviet documents should not be trusted and concludes, "We cannot deny that the Americans used BW" (Qu 2008). The double negative is an enormous change from all previous Chinese phrasing. Remarkably, all this information is deleted in the 2010 version of Qu's paper. Since the author is a military officer and is or was in a PLA institute of military history, it must be assumed that his 2008 paper would have been vetted and approved for publication by his superiors at the institute, up to and including the institute's director and a party official in charge of political affairs at the institute.

Summing Up

What remains to be ascertained about this entire historical episode? In 1998, given what was known about the relationship between Stalin and Mao, Stalin and Kim Il-sung, and the party central committees of the USSR and China, it seemed inconceivable for most scholars to imagine that it was not the USSR that was the instigator and central actor in the Korean War biological weapons allegations. That now must be considered an open question. It seems plausible that other, still unavailable documents would clarify this. Exactly who decided on what day Chinese and Soviet military personnel would place packets of various insects in the snow to be found: Mao? The Chinese generals? Zhou Enlai? Wu Zhili?

In 2010 the Russian historical archive, RGASPI, published a volume that included six cables between Mao, Stalin, and Zhou between February 21 and June 24, 1952, concerning the Korean War biological weapons allegations (Miasnikov 2010). Only a snippet of the first, Mao's long message to Stalin on February 21, had previously been available. The full text makes it clear that the information Mao supplied to Stalin was full of fabrications from the very beginning: for example, claims that the United States had used gases, had used artillery to distribute biological weapons, and had used Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war for biological weapons experiments. However, there is nearly a full month between the beginning of Wu Zhili's narrative on January 29 and Mao's message on February 21. More information than Wu provides may have been exchanged between Chinese and Soviet authorities during that period. Space limits prevent summarization of all six messages; however, they must exist in Chinese archives. The RGASPI publication also disproves Qu Aiguo's claim that none of the Soviet documents have ever been officially published in Russia.

The main story is indisputably clear: the Korean War biological weapons allegations against the United States--an accusation of the use of a weapon of mass destruction--were false, a grand piece of political theater.


Milton Leitenberg is senior research scholar at the Center for International Security Studies, School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland. Trained in biochemistry, he entered the field of arms control in 1966. His recently published books are The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History (with Raymond A. Zilinskas, 2012) and The Problem of Biological Weapons (2004). He can be reached at The author is extremely grateful for the assistance of Drew Casey, Jiehong Lou, Torbjorn Loden, and Melvin Gurtov for translations of the recent Chinese-language publications, and Mark Kramer for translation of the Soviet RGASPI documents.

(1.) An English-language translation is available in Casey 2015.

(2.) These and other details are provided in Leitenberg 1998. The early portion of this article is drawn largely from this publication. See also Weathersby 1998.

(3.) The International Association of Democratic Lawyers (ADL) report stated that "proceeding in a vein which surpasses the savagery of Hitler Germany and Hirohito Japan in the last war, the American invaders, by a systematic spreading of smallpox, cholera and plague germs over North Korea, have shocked and horrified the entire world." Claims by Western supporters of the Chinese allegations were even more extravagant. The Rev. James Endicott, head of the Canadian Peace Council, "claimed use of radioactive dust, wiped out several villages." Notes by Joseph Needham of a meeting held in the United Kingdom on April 25, 1952, to hear the results of the ADL report. See Buchanan (2001).

(4.) Nie 1992. Most of Nie's report deals with other issues, such as preplanned vaccines and gas defense for Chinese troops and anticipation of nuclear weapons use by the United States.

(5.) See also Leitenberg 2000.

(6.) Personal communication with author. Appraisals of equivalent substantive meaning were also obtained from two retired Soviet generals.

(7.) The section on US biological weapons policies and capabilities is taken from Leitenberg 2008.

(8.) A copy of this letter was supplied to the author by Representative Kastenmeier in 1969.

(9.) This information was kindly supplied by the historian John van Courtland Moon, in a personal communication in 1998.

(10.) For a useful guide to available declassified papers, see Crane 2002.

(11.) Since the 1998 publication of the Soviet Central Committee documents, at least eight North Korean or proxy publications and at least eight Chinese or proxy publications have maintained the validity of the old Korean War charges of biological weapons use by the United States during the war.

(12.) This citation and the following text (including citations) are drawn directly from Casey 2015.

(13.) See also Qi 1997.


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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Leitenberg, Milton
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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