The Axe

With the signing of an Armistice Agreement in 1953 Korean War hostilities came to an end and former combatants commenced negotiations to bring about a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War, a war which gained practically nothing for either side but cost the lives of almost 3 million people.

At the time of my visit in April 2014 these peace negotiations were in their 61st year and peace between the two belligerents seemed no closer than it did when the military truce was called in 1953.

Since 1953 there have been nearly 1000 fracases and other incidents recorded in the demilitarised zone. The fracases and incidents to which I refer have ranged from fist fights, to shouting matches, to spying, to digging/finding tunnels and a number of deaths.

Many of these incidents occurred within the Joint Security Area (JSA), a circular area of around 800 metres diameter straddling the border set aside to allow both sides to physically meet and negotiate peace, post the Armistice Agreement.

The JSA as divided in 1976

Given the close proximity of enemy personnel (both sides were initially totally free to intermingle and go anywhere – on either side of the border within the JSA) tensions were always high and very little provocation or the slightest slip-up could, did and do, cause serious problems.

The best known (and the one reported with most variability as to the details of what happened) of these incidents within the JSA is the Axe Murder Incident in which two US army officers were killed by North Korean forces on 18 August 1976.

The two officers were part of security detail protecting a working party engaged in trimming a poplar tree which was blocking the line of sight between a South Korean checkpoint and an observation post. Allegedly, the North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) had tried to abduct Southern personnel from the checkpoint and drag them into Northern territory, hence the need to trim the tree.

The Axe Murder Incident

On the morning of the 18th August 1976, armed with mattocks and axes and escorted by a security team of around 12, including US soldiers Captain Bonifas (in charge) and Lt Barrett, a working party went into the JSA to prune the poplar tree as previously agreed with the KPA.

The trimming group commenced work and within minutes about 15 KPA soldiers appeared under the commend of Snr Lt. Pak Chul who after about 15 minutes ordered that the trimming cease “because Kim Il Sung personally planted it and nourished it and it’s growing under his supervision”. Bonifas ordered to trimmers to continue work and turned his back on Pak Chul.

Having brought in additional resources Pak Chul again ordered that the trimming cease. Bonifas reacted as before at which point Pak Chul shouted “ Kill the Bastards!”.

Wielding axes dropped by the tree trimmers, the KPA attacked the Bonifas security team. Within 20-30 seconds the ensuing fight was over and Bonifas lay dead on the ground. Barrett was found close by some time later. Seriously injured from axe wounds he died on his way to hospital – picture 3 – US Army picture in open domain

Shortly after the incident North Korean media reported it thus:

“Around 10:45 a.m. today, the American imperialist aggressors sent in 14 hoodlums with axes into the Joint Security Area to cut the trees on their own accord, although such a work should be mutually consented beforehand. Four persons from our side went to the spot to warn them not to continue the work without our consent. Against our persuasion, they attacked our guards en masse and committed a serious provocative act of beating our men, wielding murderous weapons and depending on the fact that they outnumbered us. Our guards could not but resort to self-defense measures under the circumstances of this reckless provocation.”

I will not bore my reader with further detail of the incident. Suffice to say:

– a most trivial and avoidable incident lead to the death of two soldiers and the injury of many others
– a most trivial incident almost reignited full scale war
– the tree was subsequently trimmed to its bare trunk by an even lager Southern contingent without incident – Operation Phil Bunyan (picture 4 below – on display in the nearby Peace Museum)
– freedom of movement within the JSA ceased following the incident such that, while the JSA remains, neither side can cross the actual border (Military Demarcation Line) which runs through the JSA as indicated by the red line in my attached picture 2
– An axe and other implements captured by North Korea (picture 1) is now on display in the nearby Peace Museum
– The tree trunk was later removed and replaced by a memorial plaque. Being in the Southern part of the JSA/DMZ I was, off course, unable to sight this on my visit to the JSA.

Operation Bunyan – Tree Trimmed

Of particular note is the fact that this is one of the only incidents that North Korea has ever come close to offering an apology for. Kim Il-sung expressed regret without accepting responsibility:-

“It was a good thing that no big incident occurred at Panmunjom for a long period. However, it is regretful that an incident occurred in the Joint Security Area, Panmunjom this time. An effort must be made so that such incidents may not recur in the future. For this purpose both sides should make efforts. We urge your side to prevent the provocation. Our side will never provoke first, but take self-defensive measures only when provocation occurs. This is our consistent stand.”

Readers may be aware that in May 2014 the current leadership offered a no strings attached public apology for the death of an unspecified number of people when a partially constructed building collapsed in Pyongyang earlier that month.

The official government news agency, the Korean Central News Agency reported that “[North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un sat up all night, feeling painful…” while “[North Korea’s minister of people’s security] Choe Pu-il repented of himself…”

Perhaps the tide is turning but, of course, this was an internal apology and not one to American imperialist aggressors!

This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on my visit to Panmunjom (DMZ), North Korea. I suggest you continue with my next entry – The Great Leader’s Last Signature – or to start this loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – If war resumes leave the area as soon as possible!

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