How Just Some Routine Landscaping Nearly Started a Second Korean War

How Just Some Routine Landscaping Nearly Started a Second Korean War

Michael Peck

Security, Asia

An ax-fight over the tree could have ended with hundreds of thousands dead.

Key point: North Korea has a long history of provocations and armed hostility.

The American and South Korean soldiers went off to chop down a poplar tree.

Instead, they were chopped into pieces by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers. And what should have been a case of routine landscaping nearly triggered a second Korean War.

Thousands of lives could have been lost, and the Korean peninsula devastated as it had been in 1950. All because of a tree, a hot-tempered North Korean lieutenant and the most heavily armed border zone on Earth.

The tale begins on the morning of August 18, 1976, when a United Nations Command work party entered the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Their mission was to trim the branches of a poplar tree that was obscuring the view of UNC observers monitoring the Joint Security Area.

The five Korean Service Corps civilian workers were escorted by eleven American and South Korean soldiers and two U.S. Army officers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett. Bonifas and Barrett were unarmed due to limits on armed personnel in the area. Yet despite some previous tense encounters with North Korean guards, there was no reason to expect trouble. The tree-trimming had already been scheduled with North Korean representatives.

What happened next, according to the U.S. account, is that a group of fifteen North Korean soldiers arrived, led by a North Korean lieutenant named Pak Chul who had proved belligerent on previous occasions. After watching the trimming for a while, Pak then warned the work party to stop because the tree allegedly had been planted by North Korea’s Kim Il-sung. After Bonifas ordered the work to continue, a North Korean truck arrived with twenty more guards.

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