A debate is still under way as to whether Japan tested a nuclear bomb in Korea during the Second World War. This photograph depicts the area, previously called Konan, but now known as Hamheung, in northeast North Korea. This is where the bomb is said to have been built. More specifically, in the factories seen in the top right hand corner of this photo. The bomb is also supposed to have been tested in the surrounding area, on the morning of August 12, 1945. / Courtesy of Robert Neff
By Robert Neff
It is common knowledge that on October 9, 2006 North Korea tested a small nuclear bomb. But there is debate as to whether or not this was the first atomic bomb test done in Korea. Ever since the end of World War II there have been rumors that Japan, just days before its surrender, tested a small atomic bomb off the coast of modern Hamheung.
Allegedly, on the evening of August 11, 1945, a number of ancient ships, junks and fishing boats were anchored near a small inlet by the Japanese. Just before dawn on August 12, a remote controlled launch carrying the atomic bomb known as ``genzai bakudan'' (greatest fighter), slowly made its way through the assembled fleet and beached itself.
Nearly twenty miles away, observers wearing welders' glasses were blinded by the bomb's terrific blast. ``The ball of fire was estimated to be 1,000 yards in diameter. A multicolored cloud of vapors boiled towards the heavens then mushroomed in the stratosphere. The churn of water and vapor obscured the vessels directly under the burst. Ships and junks on the fringe burned fiercely at anchor. When the atmosphere cleared slightly the observers could detect several vessels had vanished.''
David Snell, an American journalist, broke the story and published his article on October 2, 1946 in the Atlanta Constitution. The article was based primarily on an interview Snell had with Captain Tsetusuo Wakabayashi (pseudonym), a Japanese counter-intelligence officer, near a Shinto shrine overlooking Seoul (probably near present day Namsan Tower).
This account has been controversial since it was first published and continues to remain the subject of books and documentaries. Few question Snell's integrity as a journalist and, as an investigator attached to the 24th Criminal Investigation Department in Seoul, he clearly had access to Japanese officers and scientists but there are many inaccuracies in his account.
The 2002 discovery of blueprints for a 20-kiloton bomb clearly indicates that the Japanese were trying to develop an atomic weapon at the end of the war. But how close were they?
Wakabayashi claimed the Japanese atomic bomb project was moved from Japan to Hamheung, at the time the largest industrial center in East Asia, following bombing attacks by American B-29 bombers in April 1945. ``We lost three months in the transfer,'' declared Wakabayashi. ``We would have had genzai bakudan three months earlier if it had not been for the B-29.'' Recent accounts support Wakabayashi's account of the damage done by the B-29s to the research center in Japan but disagree on how close atomic bomb was to production.
According to Tatsusaburo Suzuki, a Japanese physicist who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Japanese army during World War II: ``We believed in 1945 that we could build a bomb but we had to work much harder…I was confident at the time we could have built a bomb if we had better equipment.''
Nakane Ryohei who worked on enriching uranium for Japan's atomic bomb efforts said, ``We were carrying out our research so leisurely. None of us thought we would finish before the war ended.''
Wakabayashi claimed that the Japanese, shortly after successfully testing genzai bakudan, realized that the Russians would soon occupy Hamheung and tried to hide or erase the project. They smashed much of the machinery, burned documents and destroyed ``several partially completed genzai bakudan.'' They also dynamited shut the cave entrance leading into the underground bunker that served as their secret laboratory.
The Russians advanced so quickly that they captured seven key scientists and immediately began to torture them by thrusting burning slivers under their fingertips and pouring water into their nasal passages. One scientist managed to escape to the American zone but the others were reportedly taken back to Moscow where they were further tortured for their secrets.
Many modern researchers find fault with Wakabayashi's claims including Walter E. Grunden who compared the American plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee (93 square miles with 82,000 personnel all dedicated to the production of U-235) to Hamheung, a mere 15 square miles, which at its peak probably had about 45,000 personnel, many of them ``Korean laborers, conscripted students, convicts, and prisoners of war,'' who were primarily involved in ``manufacturing synthetic fuel, explosives, and industrial chemicals.'' Grunden also claims that there were only five buildings in Hamheung that the United States was unsure of their purpose.
There were, however, reports in October 1950 that the South Korean army captured a large underground bunker and complex in the Hamheung area believed to be a Russian uranium processing plant but the next month the United States military refuted the story.
Further damning is Wakabayashi's claim that the Russians captured Hamheung only a day or so following the test. The Russian actually occupied the city on August 22 about ten days after the test.
Wakabayashi claimed that seven unnamed leading Japanese scientists who helped build the bomb were captured and six of them were sent to Moscow but Grunden names them. According to him they were ``Oishi Takeo, Wakabayashi Tadashiro, Takahashi Rikizo, Sato Sei, Fukuda Koken and Tsuchida Meiro, none were physicists, but some were chemists'' and were under the command of Captain Hasegawa Hideo.
By September 29 they were all arrested and charged with the destruction of Russian government property and eventually found guilty and were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labor in Siberia for 5 to 7 years.
According to one American newspaper, the rapid Russian seizure of the ``security shrouded industrial development gnawed at the curiosity of America's top intelligence officials.'' When Edwin Pauley, a member of the War Reparations Committee, inspected northern Korea he was restricted to certain areas and was under constant Russian supervision. Even the Red Cross was not allowed to travel into the Hamheung area.
Snell claimed that the Russians were so concerned with maintaining secrecy in the region that on August 29, 1945, they shot down an American B-29 attempting to drop provisions and medical supplies at an allied prisoner of war camp near the city. They later claimed they thought the aircraft might have been a Japanese bomber even though it had American markings and the war had ended nearly two weeks earlier.
But even this is not completely correct. According to Bill Streifer, the co-author of The Flight of the Hog Wild, there were three B-29s sent out on a ``mercy mission'' to provide food and supplies for the 302 British and 52 Australian POWs held near Hamheng. While the first two B-29s may have been legitimate, the third B-29, known as the Hog Wild, was probably on a photo recon mission.
The Hog Wild was one of the newest B-29s and was equipped with the most sophisticated radar and a high-precision K-20 camera. Unlike the first two B-29s, the Hog Wild circled Hamheung several times before the suspicious Russians sent four fighters that intercepted and ordered it to land at a nearby Russian-controlled airfield.
When the Hog Wild declined it was attacked and forced to land. The crew was held for 18 days before being released. Streifer doesn't believe an atomic bomb was ever tested in Hamhung. In an email correspondence he wrote,
``I have personally interviewed an allied prisoner of war who was about five miles away at the time. He didn't recall an explosion at sea. I also read the diaries of other POWs, and they make no mention of an explosion at sea. If an atomic bomb explodes five miles away, you'll know it!''
The possibility of Japan having conducted an atomic test in Hamheung continues to be a subject for debate. Articles supporting and disproving the possibility have appeared in prestigious journals such as Science and Intelligence and National Security. It has even been made into a documentary by the Discovery Channel.
Gruden asserted that stories such as this, once they have become historical myths are almost impossible to dispel and suggested that the allegations of Japan's testing of the bomb in Hamheung was, as Snell had concluded, ``…the answer to moralists who question the decision of the United States to drop an atomic bomb.''
The writer first came to Korea with the U.S. military, and now works as a full time historian on Korea in Seoul. He is the co-author of a study of the lives of Westerners in Joseon Kingdom era. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.