In 1976, American soldiers guarding the border between North and South Korea were given what seemed like a simple task: trim a poplar tree blocking the view of a United Nations command post within the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, that had separated the two countries since the end of the Korean War.

Relations between the United States and North Korea were tense. On Aug. 5, North Korea had accused the United States and South Korea of seeking to rekindle war on the peninsula. A day later, a U.S.-led work party had tried to cut down the poplar only to be told by North Koreans to leave the tree alone. The Americans decided to trim back the branches instead, but fears remained.

“We were worried about [the pruning operation],” Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Morton Abramowitz would later acknowledge.

On the morning of Aug. 18, two American officers led a 15-man U.N. team to the tree. As they began pruning the branches, 11 North Korean soldiers arrived. Told that the tree was only being trimmed, a North Korean officer responded: “Good.”

But after 10 or 15 minutes, a North Korean officer ordered the tree-trimming to stop. When the Americans refused, the North Koreans sent for reinforcements.

“When they arrived … the North Koreans suddenly attacked, killing the two U.S. officers and injuring four Americans and four South Koreans,” Don Oberdorfer reported for The Washington Post. “Witnesses said the North Koreans used the axes intended for tree-trimming as their weapons.”

The poplar incident nearly started a second war between North Korea and the United States, which launched a massive military operation that involved hundreds of troops, B-52 bombers, fighter jets and an aircraft carrier. It was dubbed Operation Paul Bunyan, after the giant lumberjack of American folklore.

And it was, as one Post correspondent put it, the “most expensive tree-felling operation in history.”

The poplar didn’t last, but the fallout did. Days later, the “peace village” where the incident occurred was split down the middle.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un crossed that divide Friday for an inter-Korean summit, it marked the first time since the ax attack almost 42 years ago that anyone from his country had been allowed to cross. Coincidentally, the man who received him, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, was serving with his country’s special forces in the DMZ during the ax attack.

In many ways, the ax murders capture the essence of the DMZ and its eerie peace village, a place where nerves are always on edge and even the smallest of acts — a failure to salute, a refusal to let Kim smoke, an overgrown tree — can assume huge and potentially disastrous symbolism.

The DMZ is often called the “scariest place on Earth” —  although President Bill Clinton never actually uttered those words himself; he merely agreed with a journalist who used the phrase to describe the entire Korean Peninsula in 1993.  In November, a 24-year-old North Korean soldier ran from his vehicle in the DMZ as his comrades fired more than 40 rounds at him. He was hit at least five times before  South Korean soldiers were able to rescue him.

A North Korean soldier ran across the heavily guarded border with South Korea after crashing his jeep into a ditch on Nov. 13, 2017. (United States Forces Korea)

The world was holding its breath Friday, hoping the historic summit would defuse the possibility of a nuclear war.  Kim and Moon emerged Friday with a plan to work toward denuclearization and a formal end to the Korean War by the end of the year, setting the stage for a second summit between Kim and President Trump.

Just how unplanned the 1976 ax murders were remains up for debate.

The poplar had been planted 35 years earlier, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, John Saar reported for The Washington Post. Once part of a row of trees shading an important road, it alone had survived the Korean War. And when an armistice brought the bitter fighting to an uneasy halt in 1953, the poplar found itself inside the peace village or Joint Security Area — an 800-meter-wide bubble within the DMZ where soldiers from both sides intermixed.

The armistice had been signed in the JSA. But the peace village, also known as Panmunjom, wasn’t very peaceful.

American troops — who called themselves “the mad monks of the DMZ” — “had to endure spittle, kicks and punches from the North Koreans without retaliation,” Saar reported. Six years earlier, a U.S. officer had suffered a concussion and a crushed larynx when several North Koreans knocked him to the ground and kicked his throat.

So when Capt. Arthur Bonifas and First Lt. Mark Barrett set out for the tree that morning, they included in their United Nations Command team a seven-man security force.

It wouldn’t be enough.

North Korean soldiers believed that their leader, Kim Il Sung — Kim Jong Un’s grandfather — had “personally planted [the poplar] and nourished it and it’s growing under this supervision,” recalled Wayne Kirkbride, an American officer serving at the JSA at the time.

When the American officers refused to stop the tree-trimming, a truck carrying North Korean soldiers arrived. A North Korean officer was heard telling the soldiers to “kill” the Americans and South Koreans, the New York Times reported. “Then, according to the United Nations Command’s account, the North Koreans rushed the Americans and South Koreans with axes, metal pikes and ax handles,” the Times reported.

Bonifas and Barrett were killed. News of their deaths soon reached President Gerald R. Ford, who was at the Republican National Convention. Newspaper headlines the next day showed Ford easily capturing the nomination, but facing a potential crisis in Korea.

North Korea claimed the Americans had provoked the confrontation. But Kim Il Sung also “took the unusual step of sending a personal message [to President Ford] terming the killing ‘regretful,’ ” the Times reported.

American officials believed the attack was committed on purpose, not to provoke military confrontation but “to draw world attention to the Korean situation and to bring pressure at the United Nations General Assembly for an end to the United Nations command and the withdrawal of American forces, now numbering more than 41,000,” the newspaper reported.

“Whatever the merits of the dispute about the tree,” said Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, nothing could justify a “premeditated act of murder.”

Two days after the attack, Kissinger met with Ford for 45 minutes to discuss “plans to go in there and cut the tree down,” according to White House press secretary Ron Nessen.

“The tree-cutting, one official said, was the absolute minimum that could be done,” the Times reported.

Ford approved Operation Paul Bunyan.

The next morning, 110 American and South Korean troops marched into the DMZ with chain saws and rifles as helicopter gunships and Phantom fighter jets flew overhead, Oberdorfer reported. If that wasn’t enough, the USS Midway aircraft carrier anchored offshore with an escort of four frigates and a destroyer, according to the Times.

The soldiers left behind a leafless stump.

“It’s a very fine gesture of showing American resolve,” said Pak Choi, a spokesman for the South Korean government.

Another South Korean official said it was “necessary for the United States to show North Korea it was willing to come up with its mighty deterrent power to maintain peace here.”

North Korea called it a provocation.

Four days after the tree was cut down, the peace village was also cleaved in two. North Korean outposts in the southern half were destroyed, as were U.N. outposts in the northern half. Each side’s troops were barred from straying into the other’s zone.

Both sides agreed to the partition during a meeting in a building itself bisected by the military demarcation line, a mere 200 yards from the spot of the ax murders.

A Post reporter who visited the peace village three months later found that “Panmunjom remains a lonely, uninviting spot with the hush of a graveyard.”

Years before both sides would deploy loudspeakers blaring propaganda, physical confrontation had already begun to morph into what one American soldier called a “constant war with our minds,” Saar reported. “The North Korean criteria for selecting their guards seem to include the capability to sustain belligerence and shout taunts, threats and ‘Yankee go home’ in the English language.”

Saar wasted no time capturing the tensions at the peace village, beginning his article:

“There’s the guy who said he was going to kill me,” said Lt. Col. Victor S. Vierra, pointing out a grinning North Korean soldier in a drag, baggy uniform. …
“We regard them as a potential enemy,” said Vierra, who commands the 160 men assigned to Panmunjom. The North Koreans “are very bellicose,” he said, “and they hate our guts besides.”

Every man in Vierra’s unit was given a piece of the poplar as a souvenir.

“When that tree came down we felt really good,” he told Saar.

But he was also angry over the loss of his two men.

“Anyone who would kill someone over a tree must be deranged or so conditioned as not to have a proper sense of values,” he said. “What’s more important — the life of a tree or the life of a man?”

Today, the bitter stump is gone, replaced by a small memorial.

Perhaps the best reminder of the tensions inside the DMZ are the opening lines from another one of Saar’s articles from a half-century ago.

“It was a humble Korean poplar of real importance only to the magpies nesting in its upper branches, but it grew in the bloody and hate-filled soil of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone,” he wrote. “Undistinguished as it was, it nevertheless triggered an international incident.”

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