Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

'Beyond a reasonable doubt'

By Faiza Rady

In an unprecedented move last week, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) accused the United States of having committed "crimes against humanity" and called for the creation of a special UN war crimes tribunal to investigate the mass murder of North Korean civilians during the 1950-53 Korean War. In a memorandum addressed to the UN, the DPRK blasted the US military for perpetrating torture, massacres, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and biological warfare.

At a press conference in New York last Friday, Li Hyong Chol, the DPRK's ambassador to the UN, accused the US military of killing "more than one million innocent civilians" when US troops occupied parts of North Korea during the war. "In recent years, the United States is making much ado, as if it is concerned about genocide occurring in other parts of the word under the signboard of protection of human rights -- posing itself as the defender of world peace," said Li in an evident reference to the US-sponsored embargo against Iraq, which the Clinton administration justifies in terms of Iraq's alleged capabilities to produce biological weapons of mass destruction. "This is nothing more than an attempt for a criminal to cover up its true colour and camouflage as an angel," added Li.

As expected, US State Department officials vociferously denied the charges, which actually first surfaced in 1952. Dismissing the DPRK's claims as a rehashed version of communist propaganda, Mary Ellen Glynn, the spokeswoman at the US mission, described the allegations as "groundless" and "without basis in fact," then and now.

While the Clinton administration went on the warpath to undermine the DPRK's credibility, the North Koreans presented the UN with a long list of hard facts. In this memorandum, the DPRK charged that the mass killings and the use of biological warfare had been confirmed in the wake of recently declassified US government acts and through the testimonies of soldiers and victims and eyewitness accounts.

Listing a series of war crimes, the memorandum painstakingly documents the ruthless and routine mass killings of civilians. "In Sariwon City, on 5 December 1950," reads the document, "the occupiers arrested and took at least 950 inhabitants to Mt. Mara and then machine-gunned them to death. In another case among many, "On 18 October 1950, the US aggressors arrested more than 900 innocent civilians and herded them into the air-raid shelter of the Sinchon County Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea and set them on fire after pouring gasoline over them, killing every one."

The narration of similar atrocities extends over the nine-page document, with a focus on the use of biological weapons. According to the memorandum, germ weapons were part and parcel of the US military command's offensive strategy.

On 28 January 1952, the US reportedly intensified its air offensive by dropping large numbers of flies, flees, bedbugs and insects carrying contagious viruses over the Ichon area. The insects were ingeniously carried in "bomblets", a kind of hollowed-out bomb that reportedly breaks apart when it hits the ground, dispersing its contents.

Further escalating their assault over the following months and conducting an "all-out germ war," the US launched a wide-scale bombing campaign in various provinces between January and March 1952. US planes dropped various germ-carrying bomblets during an estimated 804 sorties on 169 villages and towns. These bombings led to an epidemic of atypical diseases in the area, including cholera, the plague, encephalitis and anthrax (a disease killing sheep and cattle, but transmissible to humans).

In addition to spreading killer diseases, the US military also used POWs as human guinea pigs to test the effectiveness of germ warfare in a "controlled" environment. According to a United Press report published on 18 May 1951, a group of US scientists injected 1,400 North Korean POWs incarcerated on Koje Island with various germs. As a result, 80 per cent of these POWs were infected with an unknown disease.

Can the truth of such testimonies be verified? Partly declassified Chinese, Canadian and US state archives are now available and provide damning evidence against the US. Despite decades of self-righteous US posturing, replete with vehement denials of the North Korean government's accusations, independent researchers have recently confirmed the DPRK's version of history.

Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, two Canadian historians who spent five years investigating declassified archives in China, Canada and the US -- in addition to conducting extensive interviews and field work -- concluded that the US had been actively developing biological weapons since the end of World War II. According to the two historians, the US tested these weapons by bombing parts of North Korea and China with anthrax, encephalitis and other diseases in early 1952.

While the US media has generally ignored Endicott's and Hagerman's findings and the Clinton administration continues to stubbornly dismiss the evidence, their research has won critical recognition from reputable experts on war crimes. "For reasonable people," argues Endicott, "we think we've established documentation beyond a reasonable doubt."

The documentation includes the testimony of Dr John Burton, the former head of the Australian Foreign Affairs Department, who went to China in 1952 to investigate the allegations of biological warfare. Burton wrote in a letter to Endicott in April 1977: "When I returned, Alan Watt, my successor at the Foreign Affairs Department, informed me that he had demanded answers from Washington and was told that the United States had indeed used biological arms in Korea, but only on an experimental basis."

In fact, the US approved the use of biological warfare early in the day. On 27 October 1950, only two weeks after China had dispatched a military contingent to assist the North Koreans against concerted US assaults, then US Secretary of Defence George Marshall gave the military the green light to launch a programme for biological warfare. The declassified records show that research focused on spreading diseases like botulism (a kind of food poisoning caused by a toxin), cholera, dysentery and typhoid through the use of anti-personnel weapons. At the time, the US strategy kept its research secret in order to camouflage germ warfare as "natural" epidemics, endemic to poor countries of the South.

Reviewing China's files on US germ warfare, Endicott and Hagerman noted the similarities between the Chinese and North Korean experiences. In China's Liaoning province, eye-witness accounts tell of a comparable number of US plane sorties and refer to unusual concentrations of insects -- particularly flies and fleas -- following the bombings. Medical personnel records also note the presence of insects "alien" to the region and highly resistant to the cold.

Following the bombings, epidemics of the plague, cholera and anthrax hit the region with a vengeance. While such diseases were not unknown in Liaoning province, they had always been contained. In neighbouring North Korea, the last plague epidemic dated back to 1912 and epidemics of cholera had been wiped out since 1946.

Analysis by Chinese physicians of an epidemic of acute toxic encephalitis in Liaoning province revealed that the strain was different from the endemic one. After evaluating the available data, a local team of physicians, assisted by visiting medical teams, concluded that the epidemics were "man-made" -- the consequence of biological warfare.

Despite the evidence and the DPRK's plea for a UN-sponsored international tribunal to sue the US for "crimes against humanity", the case will almost certainly remain closed. Should the Security Council call for a resolution to establish a new Nuremberg trial, it would, in all probability, be vetoed by the US.

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