Unmasking an Old Lie
A Korean War charge is exposed as a hoax
The secret winter journey took North Korea's health minister first to Beijing and then to the remote Manchurian city of Mukden. There he found his grail: a culture of plague bacilli. He spirited the sample back to North Korea, where two unfortunate criminals, already sentenced to die, were infected with the lethal germs.
The minister's mission was part of an elaborate effort in 1952 to convince the world that America had used germ warfare in the Korean conflict. Tissue samples from the two dead prisoners were used to fool international investigators. To this day, some scholars have believed the charges. But documents from Russia's Presidential Archive finally prove, more than four decades after the fact, that the United States was the victim of a disinformation campaign scripted by North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union.
The papers, which include telegrams and reports of meetings among Soviet and Chinese leaders, including Chairman Mao Zedong, will be made public this week by historian Kathryn Weathersby and biochemist Milton Leitenberg at the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
According to opinion polls, most Americans in 1952 believed Secretary of State Dean Acheson when he denied any use of biological weapons by U.S. forces. But the allegation still made headlines around the world. The charges gained plausibility because 25 captured American pilots were forced to confess to dropping disease-carrying insects on Korea and China. It was also known that the United States had studied Japan's biological warfare program after granting immunity against war-crimes prosecution to Gen. Shiro Ishii, commander of Unit 731, notorious for its use of germ weapons in Manchuria during World War II. Most damaging of all, an international commission chaired by a respected British scientist, Joseph Needham, published a report the size of a phone book that corroborated the North Korean allegation.
Fraudulent theater. Years later, after the Vietnam War, a new generation of historians revived the claim. In a 1988 book on the Korean War, Jon Halliday and Bruce Cummings questioned whether the North Koreans and the Chinese could have "mounted a spectacular piece of fraudulent theater, involving the mobilization of thousands" of people and getting scores of Chinese doctors, scientists, and senior officials "to fake evidence, lie and invent . . . medical fraud."
The new papers show they did exactly that. A report to Lavrenti Beria, head of Soviet intelligence, outlined the deception: "False plague regions were created, burials . . . were organized, measures were taken to receive the plague and cholera bacillus." Only after Joseph Stalin's death in 1953 did the Soviet Union halt the disinformation campaign.
This story appears in the November 16, 1998 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.