The demilitarized border zone (DMZ) separating
North and South Korea has been an eerie no-man's land since
its creation in 1953. With the exception of small numbers of
defectors and commandos trying to get across, birds have been
the main life form traversing the three-mile-wide stretch of
land that divides the two Koreas.
Two South Korean military officers
patrol the demilitarized zone village of Panmunjom where
the two Koreas are divided. (AP/Wide World Photos)
In the 1970s, despite the 1953 truce, there were still 42,000
American troops stationed in South Korea, and conflicts between
North and South occasionally flared up in the DMZ. By 1976,
the death toll from these scuffles had reached 49 Americans
and 1,000 Koreans.
On August 18, 1976, the two sides came closer to war than
any time since the Korean War armistice. On that day, a party
of nine South Koreans, accompanied by two U.S. officers and
four American military police, ventured into the DMZ to prune
a poplar tree. They'd decided that the tree hindered a clear
view between two U.N. checkpoints. The party from the South
was met near the tree by a North Korean lieutenant and seven
other men. At first, the North Koreans didn't seem bothered
by the intentions of the tree-cutting crew. Then the North Korean
lieutenant demanded the party halt its work. When he was refused,
a truckload of North Korean reinforcements showed up. The incident
quickly turned into a bloody conflict, resulting in two American
soldiers being beaten then axed to death.
Axe-wielding North Korean soldiers beat two American soldiers to death at the demilitarized zone in 1976. A U.N. commando captured the killings on film. (image copyright BBC, 2003)
Who took the first swing is still debated on both sides. North
Korea accused the United States of a "premeditated act" aimed
at provoking war. Regardless of which country the world believed
to be the aggressor, the fact that a dispute over a tree threatened
the onset of a hot war was indicative of the extreme and ongoing
tensions in the zone.
Word of the incident reached the United States during the
Republican Party's national convention. President Gerald Ford
issued a statement condemning North Koreans for "murder." Just
days later, however, in his acceptance speech after winning
the GOP nomination, Ford refrained from mentioning the incident.
Americans were still recovering from the trauma of a long war
in Vietnam, and observers suggested that election-year politics
had served to diffuse the incident.
But politics didn't keep the United States from staging a
show of force a week later. With 26 helicopter gunships, three
B-52 bombers and numerous fighter jets circling above, 300 U.S.
and South Korean soldiers entered the DMZ -- to finish cutting
down the poplar tree.
North Korea's President Kim Il-sung later expressed official
regret over the incident.
2002: Nukes and the "Axis of Evil"
1994: Diplomacy With Pyongyang
1991: End of a Superpower
1976: An Axe Fight Nearly
1968: Spy Ships and Infiltrators
1948: From Independence to War
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