North Korea is at it again.
After the armistice of 1953 that “ended” the Korean War, North Korea’s communist regime continued to harass South Korea as well as the American forces stationed there to protect South Korea. These efforts to destabilize South Korea and drive away the US forces from the Korean Peninsula intensified during the Vietnam War.
While President Lyndon Johnson was visiting Seoul in 1966, North Korean troops attacked an American military patrol in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) area and killed all but one member of the patrol. Two years later, North Korea mounted a daring commando attack on the Blue House, the South Korean presidential residence with the intent to decapitate South Korea’s leadership. Several days later, North Korean forces also seized the USS Pueblo, an American intelligence vessel, and held its crew hostage. In 1974, a North Korean-sponsored agent attempted to assassinate the then South Korean president Park Chung-Hee. He missed Park, but killed South Korea’s First Lady instead. These were but a handful among thousands of infiltrations, assassinations and other acts of sabotage and provocations launched by North Korea during the period.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, North Korea was again emboldened by what it perceived to be American weakness. North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung reputedly decided to teach the United States a lesson. His chance came on August 18th, 1976 when a United Nations work detail escorted by two US military officers and a South Korean officer entered the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the DMZ. They were to trim a tree blocking the view of an observation post. A larger group of North Korean military personnel then intercepted the group and ordered it to cease the tree removal. When the detail continued the work, some thirty North Korean soldiers grabbed axes, picks and pipes and commenced a brutal attack. The two American officers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett, were surrounded and viciously beaten and hacked to death while several others were wounded. They were the first fatalities in the JSA since the armistice of 1953.
This was the genesis of “Operation Paul Bunyan.” At the time, the US government was faced with a difficult dilemma. To ignore such a barbaric provocation would strengthen the North Korean perception of the day that the US was an impotent “paper tiger,” beaten by another Asian communist country. To launch a significant counter-attack would possibly lead to war. The tree itself, of course, was of negligible value, but because of the incident surrounding it, acquired a great symbolic importance.
President Gerald Ford, after much consultation, authorized Operation Paul Bunyan in response. On August 21st, US and South Korean vehicles carrying engineers entered the JSA and began to cut down the forty-foot tree with chain saws while a group of North Korean soldiers watched. The new work detail was escorted by US-South Korean military personnel including South Korean special forces. Outside the DMZ, they were in turn supported by a sizable force of tanks, artillery and additional infantry. In the air, an array of attack helicopters, fighter aircraft and B-52 bombers provided overwatch. A naval carrier task force was also mobilized to respond to any North Korean attempt to interfere with the work.
The tree fell.
North Korean communications monitored by US forces at the time showed that North Korean leaders were greatly alarmed by such an overwhelming display of force and resolve. The North Korean representative to the JSA quickly requested a meeting and conveyed an extraordinary personal message from the “Great Leader” that the incident was “regretful.” Subsequently, North Korea also finally agreed to an earlier American proposal to divide the JSA into mutually exclusive zones.
Nearly thirty years later, memories of the brutal axe murders and the firm American response are seemingly faded from most American and South Korean minds. But North Korean provocations continue. North Korea recently “test fired” a short range missile into the Sea of Japan, and is expected by many to take yet another unprecedented and provocative step of conducting a nuclear test, as early as June.
Perhaps North Korea’s belligerent despots too have forgotten the lessons of Operation Paul Bunyan. Should they continue the current path of brazen confrontation, perhaps the Bush administration ought to consider Operation Paul Bunyan II to remind them.