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NORTH KOREA - Suspicious Minds, January 2003

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Short History: U.S.-North Korea Conflict

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North Korean and American flags 2002 1994 1991 1976 1968 1948

An Axe Fight Nearly Triggers War

Two South Korean military officers patrol the demilitarized zone village of Panmunjom where the two Koreas are divided.

Two South Korean military officers patrol the demilitarized zone village of Panmunjom where the two Koreas are divided. (AP/Wide World Photos)
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.

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.

Historical photograph of North Korean soldiers beating two Americans to death (image copyright BBC, 2003)

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 Triggers War
1968: Spy Ships and Infiltrators
1948: From Independence to War

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