MUDANJIANG, China – Chinese and Japanese government specialists this month unearthed more than 1,000 wartime weapons here, including at least 26 chemical bombs, at a site 5 km from the Russian border.
A Chinese official said Wednesday during a media tour of the site in Ningan county in Mudanjiang that 1,028 pieces of weaponry had been found on the 13,400 sq.-meter site. Of those, 111 are relatively large bombs, a Japanese official said. Both sides have confirmed that 26 are chemical weapons, probably mustard gas or sneezing gas.
Since the project began Sept. 6, buses take the 32 Japanese and 160 Chinese specialists every day to the cordoned-off site next to the Ningan railway station and a steel plant. There they don hazardous materials suits before pulling rusted shells about the size of submarine sandwiches from a meter below ground.
Any potentially hazardous liquid is tested outside, and five times it has exceeded safe levels, despite the passing of at least 60 years, said Zhou Bailin, vice director of the China Abandoned Chemical Weapons assistance team.
Shells, once scraped free of rust and dirt, are sealed into olive-drab wooden boxes until they can be repacked for shipment to a Jilin Province incinerator where 90 percent of the leftover Japanese weapons will end up.
“There’s been quite a bit of difficulty,” Zhou said. “The scope of this weapons burial is complicated and dangerous.”
Five over-exposure incidents have occurred since Sept. 6, when foreign ministry officials of both countries joined experts and backup from the Self-Defense Forces and China’s Shenyang Military District for the excavation, which should end Tuesday.
The campaign is part of an effort to get rid of about 700,000 Japanese chemical projectiles that the Japanese Abandoned Chemical Weapons Office believes remain in China.
China first had evacuate 1,400 people living within 150 meters of the excavation site, discovered in 1993 by the Soft Steel Factory.
China has also tried to educate the rest of Mudanjiang, a city of some 840,000 people in Heilongjiang Province, about the effort so they know what to do if more weapons are found — something China believes is highly likely.
The two countries have identified 32 stashes of chemical arms, most notably 670,000 projectiles in Haerbaling in Dunhua city, Jilin Province.
People in the city often say they do not know about this month’s work.
“I just came back from Ningan, and I didn’t hear about it,” said 51-year-old food and spices trader Pan Xuejun, echoing other shoppers and shopkeepers along a downtown street. “They should report it, since it doesn’t impact the Communist Party.”
Other people have heard the news but feel numb because they have heard about other weapons cases in the northeast, most notably the fatal exposure of a construction worker on Aug. 4, 2003, in Qiqihar.
“It’s normal, not like it was when we were first finding out,” said local news reporter Wang Shaorui. “It’s been reported a bunch of times.”
Although both sides describe their work as cooperative, they prefer to stay apart. Signs such as “Japanese rest area” and “Chinese command center” make it clear which country’s staff is preferred in which of the 47 on-site tents. The Japanese wear gray safety suits reading “Japan” in English, while the Chinese wear blue ones bearing the English word “China.”
Media tours Wednesday were given separately to Chinese and Japanese journalists.
Language barriers keep the two teams apart, said a Japan expert on the Chinese team, who reckoned staying separate keeps things more “relaxed.”
Information, from statistics to bigger matters, is also subject to dispute. Japan claims it has no idea what the shells were for and that records were burned. China says Japan made the weapons in Hiroshima and brought them to Mudanjiang for use against China.
The agreement to dig up and handle the weapons came from two joint studies, in August 2003 and February this year. The two sides estimated 700 to 800 projectiles needed to be removed.
Japan agreed that evidence pointed toward war leftovers, and it agreed to cover the 400 million yen cost.
Japan has launched five similar missions since 2000, handling about 11,200 projectiles from the northeast and Jiangsu Province, another Japanese stronghold between 1931 and 1945.
According to the Japanese Abandoned Chemical Weapons Office, China first asked Japan to begin a cleanup in 1990, and Japan agreed formally in 1995 by ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention.