August 18, 1976: North Koreans Murder 2 US Army Officers With an Ax!

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A Brief History

On August 18, 1976, Soldiers of the North Korean Army used an ax to murder 2 US Army officers that were overseeing a work party to cut down a tree in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, in an area known as a Joint Security Area (JSA) that is manned by soldiers from North Korea, South Korea, and the United States.

Digging Deeper

The JSA is a post set up to monitor the DMZ by both sides in the Korean conflict to ensure a safe border and prevent dangerous incidents.  The United Nations observers (led by the US military) decided to cut down a 100 foot tall Poplar tree that had impeded their field of view of the DMZ. To the next UN Observation Post.  A UN work party was sent forth to cut the tree down, with the 2 US officers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barret, both of whom were unarmed, as the UN is allowed only 5 armed men in the JSA.

Confronted by 15 armed North Korean soldiers, the work party was ordered to stop work on the tree, but Capt. Bonifas ordered the 11 enlisted American and South Korean (ROK) troops to continue work.  The North Korean officer in charge (Lieutenant Pak) demanded the work stop on the basis that “Great Leader” Kim Il -sung had planted the tree personally.  Lt. Pak sent a messenger back to the North Korean side, and a truck with 20 more North Korean troops showed up armed with crowbars and clubs!  Lt. Pak ordered “Kill the bastards!” and the North Koreans attacked the UN party, killing the 2 American officers with the axes brought by the enlisted UN men, and pummeled all but 1 of the UN work party.

Incredibly, the UN work party finally got the North Koreans to leave, and throwing the bodies of the 2 dead Americans on the truck, went back to their quarters.  The incident was recorded by 2 other UN Observation Posts.

Predictably, the North Koreans immediately issued a propaganda “fake news” release that a few of their soldiers had been attacked by ax wielding UN troops, and only through desperate efforts defended themselves.  North Korean dictator, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il himself made a statement that his men had been attacked.  US/UN response was limited to non-combat military action at the wishes of the leader of South Korea and the gross imbalance (in favor of North Korea) in military power in the area.  A strong UN force was sent to finish the tree job under code name Operation Paul Bunyan.  A large force of 23 vehicles, this time equipped with chain saws, was dispatched 3 days after the murders.  The stump of the tree was left several feet high as a taunt to North Korea.

In 1987 the stump of the Poplar tree was replaced by a memorial to the Americans killed, and the North Koreans display an ax in a museum, supposedly one of the axes used in the incident.  No real retribution for the murders was ever made, much to the chagrin and rage of Americans.  The North Koreans expressed “regret” over the incident in a half-hearted acceptance of responsibility, but offered no compensation to the injured and killed soldiers.

The terrible incident in 1976 is only one of many such provocations and dirty deeds by North Korea and its despotic government, led by the Kim family and that family alone since the formation of North Korea in 1945.  This author predicts no end to such dirty deeds by North Korea until regime change is forced upon that bizarre and detached nation by the US or other responsible powers.

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think?  How can North Korea be made to behave in a civilized manner?  Should we have attacked with military force after the ax murders?  What should we do now?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cha, Victor.  The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future.  Ecco, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Bubbha of tools which were purportedly involved in the incident, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.