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Short Round #1: A Tree at the DMZ - Commentary, Pictures and Sources

So today’s episode is the first of my “Short Rounds.” I apologize if you’re disappointed in the run time, but these enable me to A.) put out a continuous flow of content every Monday and B.) address smaller little topics that don’t get a full episode. I’m not even sure I *could* have given today’s subject matter a full-length treatment if I’d wanted to. There’s only so much to say.


The infamous tree as it originally stood, c. 1976
The JSA within the DMZ, 1976
The stump of the infamous tree, taken c. 1983

This first of my short rounds discusses the Korean DMZ Axe Murder Incident, which sounds like a really bad niche punk band but *did* honestly kill two people, and the subsequent Operation Paul Bunyan, when the USA went full Rambo in every possible way in order to cut down the tree that caused the incident. This was a short series of events that lasted only a couple of days, so it gets a nice, clean 30 minute treatment.


There were some people who were openly invested in turning this incident into much more than it really was. Heck, the incident *started* because of people trying to prove a point: mainly Lieutenant Pak and his small force of North Koreans that decided to go on a murderous rampage because Allied forces were cutting down a tree that – allegedly – Kim Il-sung had planted. The entire series of events was a pissing contest from the very beginning to the very end. History is full of grown men being petty from the bottom to the top.

There were, indeed, multiple pictures of the axe murder incident taken from OP 5.


There is also video footage. There is no sound, but it's still fairly brutal.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested extending the pissing match by shooting up some fishing boats in retaliation for the axe murder incident, which assumes that A.) the North Korean government had anything to do with actually ordering the attack, which it probably didn’t, and B.) the poor fishermen had anything to do with anything. This is some edgy-ish “it’s about sending a message” type of Cold War realpolitik that dressed itself up as logical and rational but was really anything but.


But as I point out in the episode, border clashes along the DMZ and its associated areas were not new, and they’re not exactly new in the modern day. Every few years, the DPRK and its armed forces will shell some island, or sink some small ship, and there’ll be a few weeks of tension and a couple of small, carefully coordinated strikes. This usually happens when North Korea is running low on some sort of critical resource, and it’s usually easier to just throw them something shiny to keep them quiet than to actually do anything crazy about it. To most Allied nations, including the US, North Korea is just more trouble than they’re worth.

Axe Murder Incident monument
Axe Murder incident plaque

That’s exactly what makes Operation Paul Bunyan so unusual, and so silly. A stupefying smorgasbord of firepower was laid out for…well, basically no reason except to turn the pissing contest into a tidal wave. Like a community pool’s worth. Okay, I’ll stop with that analogy. Did it work? Did they cut down the tree? I mean…yes. The same way that shooting a spider with a .45 will kill the spider. Works, yeah, but probably not necessary, and it’s actually more dangerous to use that much firepower because of unforeseen consequences.


What a weird little incident. I don’t have much more to say about it. Below you can see my sources…and I will see you next week!


SOURCES


Cunningham, James. “Officer Recalls Ax Murder Incident.” Indianhead 43, no. 17 (Sep. 15, 2006): 7.


Friedman, Uri. “The ‘God Damn’ Tree That Nearly Brought America and North Korea to War.” The Atlantic, June 10, 2018.

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/06/axe-murder-north-korea-1976/562028/


Luckhurst, Toby. “The DMZ ‘gardening job’ that almost sparked a war.” BBC News, August 21, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49394758.


Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. New York: Perseus Books, 1997.


Singlaub, John K. Hazardous Duty. New York: Summit Books, 1991.


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