Politico

When the U.S. Almost Went to War With North Korea

Written by Lisa

On August 19, 1976, the day after the Republican Party nominated President Gerald Ford as its candidate in the forthcoming presidential election against Democrat Jimmy Carter, readers of the New York Times were greeted by the following harrowing front page headline:

2 AMERICANS SLAIN BY NORTH KOREANS IN CLASH AT DMZ

According to the Times, a group of North Korean (Korean People’s Army, or KPA) soldiers wielding axes and knives had attacked a group of American and South Korean soldiers and civilian workers in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, killing two U.S. officers and wounding five South Korean troops. Accompanying the article was a grainy photo of the lethal melee taken by a U.S. soldier who had observed the incident from a nearby guard post.

Following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam the year before, the DMZ was then the only place in Asia where American combat troops directly confronted Communist forces. It had also been the site of numerous other attacks by the soldiers of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather. Still, as the Times reported, “even by the level of past provocations, yesterday’s attack appeared unusually brutal.”

It was. Two American officers on a pre-agreed mission to trim a tree blocking the view of the U.S.-South Korean unit that patrolled the Joint Security Area—a heavily guarded area in the center of the DMZ—had been murdered in broad daylight by North Korean troops in a clearly premeditated attack. To the Western world, the killing of Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett—in what would soon become known as the Axe Murder Incident—seemed to epitomize the contempt of the Pyongyang regime for the United States and its indifference to human life. It appeared as if Kim Il Sung was begging for war.

More than 40 years later, we find ourselves in similar territory, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doggedly pursues his nuclear program, threatening the U.S. and its allies in the region. Kim Jong Un is “begging for war” with his “abusive use of missiles,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently said during an emergency meeting of the Security Council. As the Trump administration ponders how to handle the authoritarian Kim regime, the story of the Axe Murder Incident and its aftermath, historians say, provides a useful lesson. In 1976, President Gerald Ford’s decisive and forceful reaction succeeded in intimidating the Pyongyang regime, without escalating a low-intensity conflict between the North Koreans and the U.S. and South Korea into a full-scale war.

Ford did flex America’s military might, though, launching one of the strongest shows of combined U.S. land, air, naval and special operations forces in peacetime history. The president, working in close conjunction with our South Korean allies, went to DEFCON 3, the third highest state of military readiness.

It worked. Operation Paul Bunyan, as the carefully calibrated, shock-and-awe American response was called, may well have been Ford’s finest forgotten hour.

“Gerald Ford was very gutsy and shrewd in launching Operation Paul Bunyan,” says Douglas Brinkley, a historian and CNN commentator and author of a 2007 biography of Ford. “Operating in DEFCON 3 mode, Ford ably flexed American military might over the death of two U.S. soldiers.” No less important, observes Brinkley, “Washington kept South Korea involved in the operation all of the way.”

To top it off, Kim Il Sung, the author of the episode, wound up issuing a statement of regret. It was the last time an American soldier died in combat in Korea.

And to think: It all began with a tree.

***

In 1976, 23 years after the armistice that had ended the conflict between the two Koreas, the peninsula was still in a virtual state of war. So many violent incidents had taken place in and around the DMZ—which was patrolled by both North Korean soldiers and a U.N. force made of of U.S. and South Korean troops—that the entire area had been designated a combat zone.

All told, nearly 50 Americans had died in these skirmishes, the vast majority of them instigated by the North Koreans, along with a total of more than 1,000 Koreans on both sides. The worst rash of incidents took place in the late 1960s, a period also known as the Second Korean War, when Pyongyang was engaged in a two-pronged campaign designed to decapitate the South Korean government, led by strongman Park Chung hee, and to undermine South Korea’s alliance with the U.S. by spoiling attacks and ambushes of various kinds against U.N. troops. These attacks had continued into the 1970s. Only several months before the Axe Murder incident, a U.S. officer had been kidnapped in the DMZ by KPA marauders before a security detail was able to rescue him.

The 550-yard long Joint Security Area was often the center of the skirmishing. Also referred to as Panmunjon, after the nearby former village where the truce that concluded the Korean War had been signed in 1953, the JSA was the only area in the DMZ where both U.N. and KPA troops enjoyed freedom of movement. At the time of the Axe Murder Incident, 160 American and 75 South Korean soldiers were assigned to the elite U.N. Joint Security Command that guarded the JSA. All volunteers, the troops were specially picked for their robust physiques and cool tempers. They received special training in martial arts, riot control and hand-to-hand combat. They carried .45 caliber pistols—when they were allowed to. The inter-patrolled area was governed by strict rules about how many soldiers could carry weapons at any one time.

In August 1976, the U.N. Command in Seoul decided that a poplar tree in the JSA had grown too tall and was blocking the view between two vital U.N. guard posts, making it difficult for the U.N. soldiers to protect themselves from North Korean attacks. After the U.N. Command cleared the project with its North Korean counterpart, Korean civil service personnel entered the JSA escorted by U.N. troops to begin trimming the tree, but the group had to stop their work because of rain.

A few days later, on August 18, as the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City was noisily going about the business of nominating Gerald Ford as its presidential candidate, the tree trimming work began again. That morning, a squad of five Korean civil service personnel re-entered the JSA, accompanied by a 13-man U.N. JSC team led by U.S. Army Captain Arthur Bonifas of Newburgh, New York, and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett of Columbia, South Carolina. Because of JSA rules restricting the number of JSC personnel permitted to wear sidearms, neither Bonifas nor Barrett was armed. Perhaps because the operation had been properly arranged with the North Koreans, they did not expect any trouble.

They were mistaken. Once the trimming began, 15 North Korean soldiers appeared, led by one Lieutenant Pak, a KPA officer who had been involved in earlier confrontations. After observing the arboreal work for 15 minutes, Lt. Pak suddenly ordered the Korean service personnel to halt their work. The Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, himself had planted the tree, he declared. Now it was untouchable.

Bonifas, who already had heard his share of KPA bombast during the course of his tour in the DMZ (he had led the mission to rescue the kidnapped JSC soldier months earlier) promptly ignored Pak’s injunction and ordered the arboreal detail to continue with the mission. Unfortunately, this time Bonifas had misjudged his adversary. Within minutes, a KPA truck appeared, and approximately 20 KPA troops emerged wielding crowbars and clubs.
After Pak reportedly gave the order to kill the Americans, the KPA platoon set upon the trimmers and their security escort, with special attention to the two American officers. Pak himself struck Bonifas, knocking him down. Then five of his men finished off the hapless American with knives and axes. Still in shock, the JSC unit quickly disengaged, retrieved Bonifas’ body, and returned to its barracks.

Unfortunately, in their rush to disengage with the KPA troops the rest of the JSC detail overlooked Barrett. Barrett had dived into a nearby ditch, where he was quickly discovered by KPA troops and attacked at a more leisurely pace over the course of an hour. By the time his comrades realized their mistake and organized a rescue party for him it was too late. The mortally wounded officer died en route to hospital.

The incident had been filmed, as per standard JSC procedure by which all operations in the JSA were recorded. However, the blurred quality of the film made it difficult to actually pinpoint who was killing whom, so the North Korean regime decided to try to spin the fracas.

Four hours after the attack Kim Jong-Il, Kim Il Sung’s son, smilingly addressed the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In his brazenly mendacious statement he painted the melee as having been instigated by the U.S. and called upon the participants to endorse the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the United Nations Command from Korea. Cuba seconded the statement. It passed.

And that, the Kim regime probably thought, was it. A year after America’s embarrassing evacuation from Vietnam, perhaps the wounded American imperialist tiger would decide to withdraw from Korea as well. At worst, Kim evidently calculated, President Ford, still smarting from the criticism surrounding the rescue of the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez the year before in which 40 Marines had been killed or were missing in action, would issue a statement of protest.
At any rate, it was safe to assume, the Americans and their South Korean allies wouldn’t be doing any more tree trimming soon.

***

If that was the case, the Kim family regime figured Ford wrong.

The U.S. president and newly minted presidential candidate did issue a strong protest, calling the killing of the two American officers “a callous and unprovoked murder.” The State Department underlined Washington’s anger, stating that the U.S. was demanding “amends”—a word which it did not define further, but was taken to mean at least a formal apology—for the attack. Speaking for the president, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stated that the U.S. “absolutely WILL NOT and cannot accept” what he termed “the premeditated act of murder” of the two Americans. He added that the U.S. was still determining how to respond.

But Ford also did more. After several days of crisis talks with his top advisers, including Kissinger, as well the general staff at U.N. Command headquarters in Seoul, Ford decided that a strong show of force, just short of war, was required to retaliate for the murders of Bonifas and Barrett, as well as to underscore American resolve.

There also would be some more tree pruning involved. To put a bow on it, the planners decided to call the massive land, air and sea maneuver Operation Paul Bunyan.

On August 21, three days after the attack, a convoy of 23 American and South Korean trucks commanded by U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Victor Verra rolled unannounced into the JSA. Each truck carried a team of military engineers equipped with chain saws. Accompanying the latter day Paul Bunyans were two 30-man security platoons from the JSC armed with pistols and ax handles. South Korean special forces were deployed as well. (Interestingly, one of the South Korean troops who participated in the joint operation was current South Korean President Moon Jae-in.)

Circling behind the assemblage were 27 American helicopters carrying U.S. and South Korean troops. The gunships in turn were backed up by a number of B-52 bombers launched from Guam, along with several dozen U.S. F-4 Phantom II jets and South Korean F-5 and F-86 fighters. In addition, an aircraft carrier battle group was dispatched to the East Sea, the Korean name for the Sea of Japan.

Other detachments of U.S. and South Korean infantry and artillery gathered near the DMZ. All of the 41,000 U.S. troops in Korea were put on DEFCON 3, the third highest state of military readiness—one of only three times that has taken place since the DEFCON system was put in place in 1959. The most recent time was September 11, 2001.

At first it seemed possible that war might break out, as several hundred North Korean troops, dispatched by their gobsmacked superiors, poured into the JSA and began setting up machine gun positions. Upon their arrival, Verra, the convoy commander, got on his radio. On cue, dozens of American and South Korean helicopters and fighter jets appeared over the horizon.

That was sufficient to persuade the KPA force to stand down. The tree cutting teams commenced their work. To make things official, several minutes after they began their sawing, the U.N. Command duly notified its North Korean counterpart that a work party had entered the JSA “in order to peacefully finish the work left unfinished.”

And so it did.

Forty minutes later, the poplar tree that Kim Il Sung had supposedly planted himself—and over which two Americans had died—had been reduced to a 20-foot stump.

***

Had Pyongyang gotten the message? It did—at least for a while.

Several hours after the impressive allied show of force, Kim Il Sung issued a formal statement of regret—something that he had never done before, and that no member of the Kim dynasty has done since. His statement read in part, “It was a good thing that no big incident at Panmunjon occurred for a long time. However, it is regretful that an incident occurred in the Joint Security Area. An effort must be made so that such incidents may not recur in the future. For this purpose both sides must make efforts.”

Although the statement fell considerably short of the formal apology or “amends” that Washington had initially demanded, Ford and Kissinger decided that it was enough for the moment. For the first time since the end of the Korean War, the North had actually implicitly accepted responsibility for violence. As David Maxwell, associate director of the Center of Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, puts it, “It was as close to an apology that has ever been received from the North.”

“The ambiguous language allowed us to interpret is an apology, and the North to deny that it was an apology,” says Maxwell, a retired Army colonel who served several tours in Korea, including near the DMZ. But however you color it, he asserts, it was a remarkable step.

Operation Paul Bunyan could have been a defining moment for Ford. In the end, however, it wasn’t. For one reason or another, the tongue-tied Ford chose not to mention it during his fall debates with the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, who pinioned him over the Mayaguez affair and other matters and went on to victory.

Nevertheless, many historians and military experts agree, the infamous 1976 incident deserves to be remembered, as does the firm U.S. response.

“At the time of the Axe Murder Incident,” says Brinkley, who teaches at Rice University, “the U.S. was still licking its Vietnam War wounds. Ford’s resolve indicated to other Southeast Asian nations that the U.S. was still a fierce player in the region. It also confirmed to the people of South Korea that the U.S. would not allow North Korea to bully them.”

The murderous incident and the strong American response also got the attention of war-weary Americans who wondered why we still had troops in Korea—especially given that the U.S. was defending an authoritarian South Korean president. “The incident underscored the ongoing and historical brutality of the [North Korean] regime,” adds Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It reminded Americans of the stakes involved in Korea.”

According to Maxwell, the incident and our robust and well-coordinated response to it have direct bearing on today’s debate over how to handle Kim’s troublesome nuclear-wielding grandson.

The ultimate lesson of the now more or less forgotten affair is twofold, Maxwell asserts. “One: a combined response is stronger and more effective than a unilateral one from both a military and political/diplomatic perspective. Second, the north will back down in the face of strength—though it must be given the opportunity to back down and can not be allowed to be backed into a corner.

“The U.S./South Korean alliance has never conducted a significant demonstration of military capability since 1976,” Maxwell says. The allies did not do so when the North launched the first Taepodong missile over Japan, nor when the North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. It did not do so when the North sunk the South Korean Navy frigate Choenon and shelled Youngyong Island in 2010. … If you study the pattern of North Korean provocations—which are part of its blackmail diplomacy strategy to gain political and economic concessions—you will see that the North continues to conduct provocations because there is never a show of force on the scale of Paul Bunyan. … The overall lesson is that we have to demonstrate decisive strength and resolve in the face of North Korean provocations, in concert with our South Korean allies, if we want to influence regime decision-making and behavior in a positive way.”

As Maxwell points out, it is also important to remember the sacrifice of our two soldiers, Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Barrett, two of the hundreds of Americans who have died in so-called “minor actions” and “small wars” over the years. The Army remembered. It promoted Bonifas posthumously to major and renamed Camp Kitty Hawk, a United Nations Command post located near the south boundary of the DMZ, Camp Bonifas.

And on the site of the Axe Murder Incident stands a commemorative marker dedicated to both Bonifas and Barrett, the last two American soldiers to die in Korea as a result of hostile action. The plaque is embossed with the flags of the United States and of South Korea, the country the two men died defending.

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