In August 1976, an eighty-foot tall tree in full bloom obstructed the view of the UN guard post next to the “Bridge of No Return.” At that time, the Korean Joint Security Area, (a half mile wide bubble of neutral zone within the DMZ, northwest of Seoul), was truly “joint.” Both North Korean and UN guards moved freely throughout the zone to guard posts on both sides of the Military Demarcation Line that dotted the roads heading North and South.
Thirty-five guards from the North and thirty-five from the “UNC,” (South Korean and American forces) provided security with only pistols, not for self-protection but to protect visitors and dignitaries visiting the JSA.
As soldier Bill Ferguson stationed there at the time put it,
If somebody was already killed, we still couldn’t use our sidearms unless we actually saw somebody else [whose] life was in imminent danger. To minimize the possibility of escalation, we were never allowed the use of weapons to defend ourselves, only others.”1
Preventing escalation didn’t stop the guards occasionally spitting on and brawling with each other. One flashpoint was next to the “Bridge of No Return,” UN Checkpoint #3, also known as the “Loneliest Outpost in the World,” where the eighty foot tall tree had grown wide like a fan and hid it from the other UN positions.
American soldiers and North Korean soldiers used its shelter to barter, often Marlboros for Kim Il-sung pins. Sometimes North Koreans used the cover to kidnap American soldiers and drag them over the bridge to ransom, or to pluck them out at night and rough them up.
The North Koreans claimed that the tree had been planted by Kim Il-sung himself and had scared off a civilian maintenance crew tasked with trimming it. Twelve days later, on August 18, the UNC notified the North that the tree would be trimmed and sent a second crew with several accompanying American soldiers led by Captain Arthur Bonifas. A group of North Koreans guards, lead by Lt. Pak Chul, (who the Americans had nicknamed “Bulldog” for all his threatening), approached and asked what was going on.
He listened and nodded and agreed the tree needed a trim. Then all the soldiers watched, pointed, and advised the civilian work crew sawing the limbs how they could get a better grip on the saw, a better angle on the limb, like fathers at a neighborhood barbecue gathered by a cooler discussing a tree encroaching a property line.
Then, in a sudden change of heart, Lt. Pak told everyone to stop. Captain Bonifas knew “Bulldog,” and knew how he liked to yank the American’s chains. The work crew didn’t stop.
Lt. Pak sent a runner, and he came back with a truck full of reinforcements armed with crowbars, clubs, and pipes. You will stop or it will be death, Lt. Pak said. The workers were nervous.
Captain Bonifas wasn’t going to take Lt. Pak’s windup. So, he turned his back to him, like he had done many times before, and told the workman to keep trimming. He didn’t see Lt. Pak take off his watch, wrap it in his white handkerchief, and stuff it in his pocket. Even if he had, would he have known this was the cue to attack?
What happened next isn’t clear, other than Bonifas was knocked to the ground, and the thirty plus guards leapt onto the fifteen-man tree trimming team. It wasn’t much of a melee, just clubs and pipes and crowbars to temples and bones and guts.
One American, First Lieutenant Mark Barrett, fled over a retaining wall and into a depression and out of sight. By the time American responders trucked into the mob, sending the North Koreans back over the “Bridge of No Return,” Captain Bonifas was limp on the ground, beaten to death, two days short of his transfer out of country. The responders piled his body and the rest of the battered group into the back of the trucks and hurried to the hospital. All except for First Lieutenant Mark Barrett—he was missing.
Thirty minutes later, an UN observation post noticed North Koreans taking turns leaving their post near the tree and going down into the depression. The one coming back would hand an axe to the one going down. That’s where the search party found Lieutenant Barrett, his face battered beyond recognition, somehow still breathing. He died in the medevac.2
If Korea was a whole country, and if you saw it as one on a map, it would be shaped like a bounding rabbit. If you rubbed a red smudge on the spot where its heart would be, that would mark the Joint Security Area. The JSA is a half a mile wide bubble within the DMZ marking the spot of a bombed out village, Panmunjom (also known as the “truce village”), where the 1953 armistice was signed.
From its beginning to today, it’s the only neutral zone where North Koreans, South Koreans, and Americans can regularly look at each other. On the west edge is the “Bridge of No Return.” This bridge is where both parties traded soldiers, sailors, and spies after the armistice. In the middle are blue buildings of the rebuilt village where they negotiate and a weedy dirt road, “cattle road,” where an eighty-three-year-old founder of Hyundai led cattle in the backs of trucks to North Korea to help farmers with the famine. On the eastern edge over a wash is a lowly footbridge painted the same blue as the Korean unification flag.
In April of 2018, for the first of the new Inter-Korea summits, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met in between the buildings of the village and shook hands first on the Southern side of the MDL and then again on the Northern side, then held hands as they went to the “Peace House.”
This was the first time a leader of North Korea had set foot in the South since the war started. Later, between the “cattle road” and the blue footbridge, Kim and Moon slipped on white gloves and planted a pine tree that sprouted in 1953, the year of the armistice. In the gaps around the tree, they filled dirt from North Korea’s Mt. Baekdu and South Korea’s Mt. Halla, the two highest peaks in Korea, both said to be places of the gods. They fed it water from North Korea’s Daedong river and South Korea’s Han river, rivers that flow through the hearts of their capitals. Then they strolled together without the journalists on the blue footbridge, seemingly the only thing in the JSA without a nickname. They stayed away from the “Bridge of No Return.”
My mother emigrated from Korea in the 70s. What startled her the most about the Inter-Korean Summit were photos of President Moon and Kim Jong-un holding hands as if they were long lost friends.
“Give me a break,” she said. “They’re acting like children. All heart and no brain, as if they forgot everything we’ve been through.”
For American pundits, the joint declaration of seizing hostile acts, setting up a “peace zone” in the Yellow sea, drawing back the numbers of soldiers along the DMZ, reconnecting road and railroads to allow separated families to visit on another, and ultimately work towards denuclearization and peace, was simply “hype”,1 “airy, empty confections,”4 and ultimately a set up for “suckers.”5 They point to how there were summits in 2000 and 2007 and how they did nothing. So why would this be any different?
No, they say, what really matters, what has taken our attention is the all-important question of whether Kim Jong-un is playing President Trump, or if Trump is enacting the art of the deal.
However, what startled most of those in South Korea (and likely North Korea), was hearing Kim Jong-un’s voice. There is only one known recording of his father, Kim Jung Il, giving a speech. Yet here was Kim Jong-un, not reading bombastic speeches on TV, but conversing with President Moon about the goal of making peace by the end of the year.
Journalists reported how Kim Jong-un gazed at the clocks in the Peace House and saw North Korea’s clock was thirty minutes behind of South Korea’s. It made his heart heavy, he said, as if he recognized that they didn’t live in the same time.
It was startling because we know so little about Kim Jong-un. We don’t know his age. We don’t know if he had his uncle executed with an anti-aircraft gun and had his brother assassinated with a VX nerve agent because he is ruthlessness or, as Fareed Zakaria speculated, he:
…was trying to send a signal… to the Chinese, “Don’t try to replace me; don’t’ even think of a coup.” That’s why he gets rid of the brother, who could replace him, [and] the uncle who was close to the Chinese.6
In fact, the person that knows Kim Jong-un the best outside North Korea, isn’t a spy or analyst; it’s Dennis Rodman, who says that Kim Jong-un likes to sing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” for karaoke.7
And with each new summit we get to see more of Rodman’s Kim Jong-un. At the most recent one, he got into a ski lift at Mt. Baekdu with President Moon and his wife, wheezing and out of breath. He asked them weren’t they tired from the stroll? This moment of weakness doesn’t play to the script of a phantom crazed strongman bent on destruction, but rather gives the impression of a person that can be known, negotiated with. A person that sings Sinatra on karaoke nights.
The Inter-Korean summits of 2000 and 2007 had taken years to assemble. 2018’s series of summits seemed instantaneous. Maybe that’s why there’s this sense that something is different this time around. Maybe it’s the players. Kim Jong-un is not his father. President Trump is not like any president we’ve had in living memory. And then there’s President Moon, the only one of the three that has called for a dialogue of peace since his campaign started in 2017, the one who put together the six-party talks in 2007 as chief of staff to President Roh Moo hyun, and the only one to serve as a soldier.
Hours after Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Bennet were beaten to death, President Ford tasked Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to come up with a strong response. 1976 was a presidential election year and while President Ford campaigned, Kissinger chaired a meeting of the National Security Council’s Washington Special Action Group, (WSAG) a group only called together in times of crises. One of the first things they discussed was moving the DEFCON alert level from “Five” to “Three.” (As defined by Admiral James Holloway representing the Department of Defense: “Five,” meant “normal.” One meant an “active shooting war”). At this point, CIA East Asia analyst Dr. Evelyn Colbert posed the question, “If the alert were moved up to 3 how would the media and the US people react to that in this campaign year?” Secretary Kissinger responded, “That has nothing to do with it. The important thing is that they beat two Americans to death and must pay the price.”
One question plagued the group; the beaten soldiers had pistols. Why didn’t they shoot their attackers?
Secretary Kissinger: If I had been one of those men and was being beaten to death, I would have used a firearm.
Philip Habib [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs]: They were attacked from behind and had no chance.
Admiral James Holloway: Most of these men are Vietnam veterans. They were taught there to die before violating the rules of engagement.8
Over the next two days the group weighed different possibilities, from dropping a laser guided bomb on the tree, sinking ships in a North Korean harbor or sabotaging industrial sites with special forces, to even making a media spectacle by sending in journalists to document cutting down the tree. The one thing Kissinger wanted for sure was to shell the North Korean barracks because, “There would then be a high probability of getting the people who did this.”
The South Korean President of the time, and dictator, Park Chung Hee, didn’t want a military attack of any kind9, and President Ford stated proudly in a campaign speech that same week that “there were no Americans in combat anywhere in the world.” Eventually, everyone agreed that the tree had to go. General Stillwell made the plan: send in a force to cut the tree down and protect the engineers doing it. If things went badly, if the North Koreans attacked, have everyone ready to fight the renewed war.
Not all agreed with the plan.
William Clements [Deputy Secretary of Defense]: This business of sending in a squad is nonsense. It will just lead to a confrontation and may get a bunch of others killed. What for? A tree? One guy with explosives, some plastique, could do the job. He could go in on a bicycle. Why risk a bunch of people for a tree? I don’t like it at all. It makes no sense. We should not expect unarmed Americans to go in there and get killed over a tree.
Secretary Kissinger: The basic point is that we know we have the right to cut down the tree. They have killed two Americans and if we do nothing they will do it again. We have to do something.10
That tree had to go.
Between 2007 and 2017, cooperation and hope of peace between the Koreas died. It started with a satellite launch by North Korea, which effectively ended the six party talks. South Korea elected the hawkish Lee Myung-bak and then Park Guen-hye, (the daughter of past dictator Park Chung Hee), who clamped down on freedom of the press, squashed protesting unions, and manipulated elections with the help of Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
The North Koreans sank the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan, killing forty-six sailors and shelled Yeonpyeong island and its village, killing four and injuring nineteen, both occurring in the contested zone of the Yellow Sea. The South Koreans shut down the Kaesong joint industrial complex and the North Koreans cut the Seoul-Pyongyang crisis line, both viewing cooperation and communication as futile. From that point, the only way to directly communicate with North Korea was to shout over the MDL with a bullhorn.
During those same years the Obama administration maintained sanctions and implemented “strategic patience.” This essentially meant doing nothing and hoping North Korea would collapse. Kim Jong-il died (no one knew for days). Kim Jong-un came to power out of nowhere, (the only information the outside world had about him was a grainy photo of him as a child in Switzerland and some anecdotes from a personal chef). North Korea’s fledgling nuclear and ballistic missile program became legitimate enough to worry Americans to a Hawaiian false alarm, and their cyber warfare teams became slick enough to hack Sony, scare Hollywood, and steal from banks around the world.
In 2017, as Korea’s first woman President Park Guen Hye was impeached and jailed for corruption, and Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump butted heads, measured buttons, and declared who could get more nuked, Moon Jae-in ran for president. He called for new dialogue, not just more sanctions. And he won.
Conservatives criticized Moon for being too soft on North Korea. After the North Korean launches, he maintained the installation of a controversial THAAD air defense system from the US that had infuriated China, and joined with President Trump in calling for more sanctions. However, Moon did not threaten or warn the North with more war, he called for dialogue. He assembled a cabinet whose sole purpose was to do just that: get the North talking again.
Three mornings after the deaths of Cpt. Bonifas and Lt. Bennent, swarms of fighters circled out on the eastern horizon, and just beyond it the aircraft carrier USS Midway readied to launch more. To the west, B-52s loaded with bombs and possibly nuclear weapons approached the North Korean coast in full view of their radars. Artillery pieces near the JSA targeted the “Bridge of No Return” and the North Korean Barracks to prevent reinforcement. Cobra attack helicopters and Hueys laden with army strike teams hovered and observed. A weapons platoon at Camp Liberty Bell, close to the JSA, rigged fuel cans and explosives in all the buildings to blow at the first sound of battle in order to prevent anything from falling into the hands of the North Koreans.
All along the DMZ the military “cocked and locked” in case the mission to chop down Kim Il-sung’s tree went sour and restarted the war.
This was “Operation Paul Bunyan.” And it was simple: without warning, in the early morning, American engineers armed with chainsaws would truck in, cut down the tree, remove a couple of road barriers the North Koreans had set up and then leave. “The purpose of this exercise is to overawe them,” Kissinger said in the WASAG meeting before the operation, “We are two million people and they are sixteen million.”11
The immediate security detail included South Korean special forces, selected to fight hand to hand, or club to club, with any North Korean forces who may interfere within the JSA. If they did, they would be fighting the first battle of the renewed war.
One of those special force soldiers was future President Moon Jae-in.
The UN trucks roared up the road to the tree and the engineers got out and got to cutting. Moon Jae-in and the rest of the security squads moved into positions forming a protective box around the engineers and faced the “Bridge of No Return.” On the other side of the bridge, North Korean trucks arrived and dropped off squads of two-man machine gun teams and riflemen with AK-47s.
Imagine it: chainsaws biting wood, helicopters thumping air, trucks idling and the muggy morning sticking army fatigues to skin while everyone sweated nerves and felt for their pistols, remembering where they had hidden their M16s in their trucks, looking across the bridge with a whole other army sweating and aiming their guns at you, all waiting for the starting shot of a new war.
And that morning there was shooting.
In July 2017, two months after his election, Moon gave a speech in another nation that knew what it meant to be divided: Germany. There, he said South Korea would take “a more leading role” in order to “embark on a dauntless journey towards establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” He also said, for North Korea to hear, “We do not wish for North Korea’s collapse, and will not work towards any kind of unification through absorption. Neither will we pursue an artificial unification.”12
He suggested the meetings. He suggested the joint Olympic team. While the US and North Korea continued trading barbs and the American media declared Korea a powder keg, President Moon maintained that his goal was to open a dialog for peace. He tasked his head of intelligence, Suh Hoon, who had been instrumental in assembling the first two Inter-Korean summits, to get it done, and he did.13 This led to meetings with North Korea in January 2018, a reestablishment of the Seoul-Pyongyang hotline, joint participation in the winter Olympics, agreement to discuss denuclearization, the Inter-Korean summit where both President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un could plant a tree, and the summits that continue even now.
One American observation helicopter strayed over the MDL and the North Koreans fired small arms at it.14 Did Moon Jae-in, the soldier, hear those shots? Did he hear the tinny pings against the fuselage? Did he think that his world was about to become all fire and fury?
Likely, no one near the tree heard those shots over the chainsaws and idling trucks and helicopters. If they had, there would have been drum rolls of machine guns. There would have been artillery shells and missiles screaming across the sky re-inaugurating the war that never officially ended.
Instead, Operation Paul Bunyan chopped Kim Il-sung’s tree down to an eight-foot stump, like a symbolic middle finger that rotted and blackened for years before finally being uprooted and replaced with a small memorial for the two soldiers who died. The mission was successful. No one was hurt, the North Koreans were awed by the overwhelming show of force, and the war continued quietly on.
Moon Jae-in would go on to college, get arrested for protesting an unjust government, and spend years as a human rights lawyer. In the 2000s he served as the Chief of Staff for the last President to try and work with North Korea, President Roh Moo-hyun.
These were the years when it seemed that things might change, when there were talks and summits of peace and denuclearization. Before the hawkish Korean presidents, the “strategic patience,” the sinking of South Korean Navy’s Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, and the thin gristle of communication being cleaved.
For my wife, a Korean who splits her time between the US and Korea, seeing and hearing President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un on the stage talking about peace was the first time she honestly believed peace could happen. “Why can’t peace be that easy? Why can’t we just end the war?”
As the weeks progressed and the dance between Kim and Trump of “will there or won’t there be a meeting” deepened, her mother pointed out, “Peace can never be easy. It’s always complicated.”
For me, a Korean American who has heard a lifetime of Korean American families dreaming of unification, of a whole Korea, all of this talk reminds me of how far away we really are. Such hopes are easier to hold on to when you live so far away from the North Korean artillery aimed to blast shells through your apartment.
The fact is many Koreans, for generations now, have numbed. The hope of a whole Korea withered year to year, incident to incident, threat to threat. It hurts to hope. It is easier to accept that phantom to the North, shouting from their dark half of the rabbit, will forever just be that distant memory from a long gone time.
After President Moon and Kim Jong-un planted their tree, they took a stroll along the blue footbridge alone, without the gaggle of photographers and journalists. I wonder if President Moon looked back toward where the stump used to be, mere blocks away, where the Americans continue to hold ceremonies for Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Barrett, who died over a tree. I wonder if he thought of that humid morning, how scared he was, how all of those men on both sides the bridge must’ve been scared of what might have happened.
“Unification is a process where both sides seek coexistence and co-prosperity and restore its national community,” President Moon said in Berlin. He continued:
When peace is established, unification will be realized naturally someday through the agreement between the South and the North. What my Government and I would like to realize is only peace.
Only peace. Wholeness will not happen for our generation. After years of threats and silence, it’s foolish for anyone to expect the heart of that whole rabbit to be more than it really is, a dangerous, abandoned town. President Moon knows this. And he is the only leader emphasizing peace instead of war. Maybe that is because he’s the only one of the three that has stared at men with guns pointed at him, at a moment when both sides waited to see who was foolish enough to cross that bridge into fire and fury.
Rumpus original art by Mike Tré.
3. Max Boot. “Don’t let the Korea summit hype fool you. We’ve been here before.“ The Washington Post, 4/27/18.↩
4. Bruce Klinger. “Nice try, North Korea and South Korea, but your pledges are airy, empty confections.“ Los Angeles Times, 5/1/18.↩
7. Bob Woodruff and Joseph Rhee. “Dennis Rodman talks about the ‘always smiling’ Kim Jong Un singing karaoke, horseback riding.“ 20/20, ABC. 12/19/2017.↩
8. Ford Library, National Security Adviser, NSC Staff for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Convenience Files, Box 27, WSAG Meeting, Korean Incident, August 18, 1976. Secret. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.↩
12. Bae Hyun-jung “Full text of Moon’s speech at the Korber Foundation.“The Korea Herald, 7/7/17.↩
13. Soyoung Kim. “South Korea’s spy chief plays key role in historic meeting with North.“ Reuters World News, 4/27/18.↩
14. “Negotiating with North Koreans: The U.S. Experience at Panmunjom.“ US Army War College, May 16, 1977.↩