MURDER IN THE DMZ (POLITICO/9-14-17)

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 soldiers wielding axes and knives had attacked a group of American and South Korean soldiers and civilian workers in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) 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 now the only place in Asia where American combat troops directly confronted Communist forces, and had 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 which patrolled the Joint Security Area (JSA), the, small, heavily guarded, 550 yard long area in the center of the DMZ–also referred to as Panmunjon after the nearby former North Korean village where the truce which concluded the Korean War had been signed in 1953–had been murdered in broad daylight by North Korean troops in a premeditated attack. To the Western world, the killing of Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett—soon to 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.

To paraphrase United States ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley’s characterization of the North Korean’s government’s recent nuclear antics, it almost seemed as if Kim Il Sung was begging for war.

As we know, of course, he didn’t get it. What he did get was one of the strongest shows of combined U.S. land, air, naval and special operations forces in peacetime history, as President Gerald Ford, working in close conjunction with our South Korean allies, went to DEFCON 3, the third highest state of military readiness.
Most importantly, the operation 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, the 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—note to the Trump administration—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.

And to think: It all began with a tree.

***

By 1976, 23 years after the armistice which had ended the war 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, including the tense JSA–the only area where UN, i.e., U.S. and South Korean troops and North Korean (KPA) troops actually faced off against each other—that the entire zone, as well as the JSC, 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 prong campaign designed to at once decapitate the South Korean government, then led by strongman Park Chung hee, as well undermine its alliance with the U.S. by spoiling attacks against U.N. troops. But pinprick attacks had continued into the 1970s. Only several months before the Axe Murder incident a U.S. officer had been kidnapped in the JSA by KPA marauders before a security detail led by the soon-to-be murdered Captain Bonifas could rescue him.

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 (JSC) 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 in the inter-patrolled area where both sides also still enjoyed free movement (an arrangement which ended after the ’76 fracas).

Amongst the JSC’s varied duties was occasionally accompanying civilian workers from the Korean Service Corps (KSC) while performing maintenance duties around the JSA, as was the case on that fateful August day in 1976 when the KSC workers were assigned to cut down the tree in question.
***
To be sure, the hundred-foot tall poplar tree which triggered the incident of August 18, 1976 was no ordinary poplar tree. Indeed, according to the North Korean officer who led the attack, it had been planted by Kim Il Sung himself.

As far as the U.S. and South Korean troops were concerned, the tree blocked the view between two key command posts, making it difficult for the soldiers to defend itself from the then-frequent attacks and incursions by North Korean forces.

On the morning of 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, a squad of five KSC personnel entered the Joint Security Area in order to continue trimming the poplar tree which had blocked the view of Command Post 3, work which they had started on several days before. Accompanying the trimmers was a 13 man UN 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 a rule restricting the number of JSC personnel permitted to wear side arms, neither Bonifas nor Barrett were armed. Perhaps because the operation had been properly arranged with the North Koreans, their superiors did not expect any trouble.

They were mistaken. Once the trimming began, 15 North Korean soldiers appeared, led by one Lt. 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. Now it was untouchable.

Bonifas, who already had heard his share of KPA bombast during the course of his tour in the DMZ, promptly ignored Pak’s injunction and turned his back and ordered the arboreal detail to continue with the mission. Unfortunately, this time Bonifas had misjudged his adversary. Within minutes, a KPA truck appeared from which issued approximately 20 KPA troops 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, Bonifas and Barrett. 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’s body, and returned to its barracks.

Unfortunately, in their dismay the soldiers overlooked Barrett. Barrett had dived into a nearby ditch, where he was quickly discovered by the 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. Cuba seconded the statement. It passed.

And that, the Kim regime felt, 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.”

But Ford did more. After several days of crisis talks with his top advisers, including Secretary of State Henry 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 axe 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 US F-4 Phantom II jets and South Korean F-5 and F-86 fighters. In addition, a carrier battle group was dispatched to the East Sea, the Korean name for the Sea of Japan.

Near the DMZ, other detachments of U.S. and South Korean infantry and artillery were also brought up. All U.S. forces in the region 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 into place in 1959; the last time was September 11.

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 which 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 not an all out apology, but a formal statement of regret—something which he had never done before, nor has any member of the Kim dynasty 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 no such incidents may not recur in the future. For this purpose both sides must make efforts.”

Although the statement didn’t go quite as far as the Ford administration would have liked, 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 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. However you color it, he asserts, it was a remarkable step.

Operation Paul Bunyan could also 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, 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 Douglas 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.”

Too, the murderous incident and the strong American response 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 has direct bearing on today’s debate over how to handle Kim’s troublesome nuclear-wielding grandson.

The ultimate lesson of the entire, 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. It did not when the North launched the first Taepodong missile over Japan. It did not when the North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. It did not 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.”
It is also, Maxwell, points out, important to remember the sacrifice of our two soldiers, Captain Bonifas and Lieutentant 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 is 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 both the flag of the United States and that of South Korea, the country the two men died defending.

This is the original draft of an essay that appeared in the History Department of POLITICO on September 14, 2017. .


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