In a previous post, we reported on new speculation with respect to the Japanese nuclear program at the end of World War II and whether it might have benefited either Soviet or later North Korean nuclear efforts. We continue drawing on an informative paper by Walter Grunden, an historian at Bowling Green State University, who has written the definitive work in English on the topic, including “Hungnam and the Japanese Atomic Bomb: Recent Historiography of a Postwar Myth”, “Wartime Nuclear Weapons Research in Germany and Japan”, and Secret Weapons & World War II .
With the Soviet Red Army drawing ever closer to the northern border of Korea, the Japanese set out to deny the approaching Red Army use of the industrial facilities at Hungnam by salvaging and removing what they could. Exactly what the Soviet Red Army did in Hungnam after they entered the war and Korea remains something of a mystery. Rumors circulated that the Soviets behaved there as they did elsewhere on the peninsula, shipping out parts of factories and equipment by the truck and train load. They also may have engaged in surveying and mining uranium bearing ores in northern Korea. Yet the fact that they pillaged Japanese assets and were searching for uranium does not imply that these actions had any bearing on the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Indeed, by August 1945, the Soviets were arguably well ahead of the Japanese in nuclear weapons research. It is also now well known that the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program was accelerated not by captured Japanese technology and scientists, but rather by KGB espionage efforts to penetrate the Manhattan Project. Where nuclear weapons were concerned, it would seem the only interest the Soviet Union had in North Korea was exploring for uranium-bearing ores. In October 1949, the New York Times reported the Soviets were engaged in mining for uranium ore in North Korea. One year later, just four months after the outbreak of the Korean War, the Times reported that a South Korean Army unit had captured what appeared to be a uranium ore processing plant in Hungnam, but retracted the statement about a week later. Such journalistic miscues later became fodder for the conspiracy theorists who saw them as red herrings that served only to throw would-be researchers off the trail of the real story – Japan’s wartime nuclear research and its successful detonation of an atomic bomb at war’s end.
What about the North Koreans? Arguably, of greatest importance to the long-term economic and industrial development of North Korea were the four hydroelectric generating plants located northwest of Hungnam. These, together with what remained of some of the Nitchitsu factories left by the Soviets, provided the foundation for post-World War II reconstruction in northern Korea. Within five years, Hungnam had reemerged as an important center of industry for the north as a producer of metals, chemicals, and fertilizer. Hungnam also became strategic territory during the Korean War (1950-1953), and its port was the site of a massive evacuation of U.S. forces in December 1950 during the battle for the Chosin Reservoir. But, according to U.S. military intelligence gathered in 1951, whatever remained there at that time was “virtually leveled by United Nations Air Force bombing and demolition” during the evacuation.
According to most standard accounts, North Korea’s interest in nuclear energy and weapons did not become serious until well after the Korean War and grew out of technical agreements with Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China culminating in the foundation of a nuclear research facility at Yongbyon in 1964—a substantial distance from Hungnam. The only role Hungnam appears to have played in North Korea’s nuclear program in the last 50 or more years – and it is not an inconsequential one – is as a possible source of supply of uranium-bearing ores; the fact that North Korea is capable of mining uranium complicates non-proliferation efforts. But this would have no doubt happened with or without the Japanese interest.
What about the allegation that Japan might have actually tested a weapon at the very end of the war? This claim has its origins in an article published in the Atlanta Constitution in October 1946, in which reporter David Snell relayed the story as told to him by a Japanese counter-intelligence officer. The story was retracted the next day. Wilcox found the original article in the course of his research and developed it as a central theme of his book. In the end, however, he was unable to find the “smoking gun” document to prove the allegation conclusively, and to date, the evidence remains circumstantial at best. But this does not deter the conspiracy theorists who continue to make hay over the issue on the internet. For some examples, see here and here.
Their belief, however, defies logic. First, consider the sheer folly of a desperate Japanese military wasting such a weapon on a “test” in the waning days of the war. Why not use it against the advancing Soviet Red Army, or deliver it by submarine within close proximity of any of the U.S. occupied islands in the Pacific? Secondly, conspiracy theorists argue that “the Japanese” pulled “a curtain of silence” over the matter and destroyed or otherwise withheld evidence to forever bury the truth of Japan’s wartime research. (For example, see Shapley.) Of course, this is the classic fallacy of appeal to ignorance: that if you can’t prove something is false, it must be true. Third, such an event as the alleged Hungnam bomb test would leave physical traces that could be detected even today, perhaps by registering higher background radiation in the blast area, or discovering significant effects on the environment in the places where the uranium was mined and enriched, and where the weapon was prepared. Would it also not have been in North Korea’s interest to make an international cause out of the incident, for it too could then construct its own victimization narrative and make endless political hay out of the Hungnam bomb controversy?
In sum, the theory that Japan had a significant nuclear program in Korea and might have even tested has been thoroughly debunked. But the rise of the internet and new media have provided an echo chamber in which uncertainties or outright falsehoods surrounding the Hungnam nuclear program and bomb are amplified. In his essay, Prof. Grunden provides additional speculation on the durability of such claims, including the fact that academic historians who toil the fields on these issues do not always engage with those who have access to the airwaves. He also notes that even otherwise credible sources–the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) or the BBC—end up casually providing fodder for others by maintaining links to material that has been discredited or summarizing historical documents in a casual fashion.
However, Grunden goes deeper, noting how theories of this sort may have other motivations, such as providing ex post justification for the difficult decisions taken with respect to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And of course Japanese denial with respect to its nuclear ambitions has its own political advantages, giving the conspiracy theories some surface plausibility. Thanks to Prof. Grunden for his perspicacity on this issue and for providing us with a good summer read in his Secret Weapons & World War II.