Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

An Axe Murder Triggers a Standoff in Korea’s DMZ, 1976

Start-cutting2The United States and North Korea have not had the best relations, to put it mildly. Even in a place like Cuba, which Washington does not recognize diplomatically, the U.S. has an Interests Section which can get a better idea of the situation in country and which can serve as a channel, however imperfect, with Havana. Not so in Pyongyang. Over the decades, there has been a raft of provocative incidents which fortunately did not lead to all-out war between the two sides. The most notable of these is the 1968 USS Pueblo incident in which North Korea, having failed to assassinate the South Korean president, decided to follow up by seizing an American surveillance vessel in international waters; the crew was held for nearly a year. Most recently, Sony Pictures, which was behind the December 2014 movie The Interview, was hacked; North Korea, thought to be by many to be the perpetrator, denied involvement while it applauded the act.

One of the most bizarre, and potentially inflammatory, incidents, was the axe murder of two United States Army officers by North Korean soldiers on August 18, 1976, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) located in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The U.S. Army officers had been part of a work party cutting down a poplar tree in the JSA that was blocking the view of United Nations observers.

Within four hours of the attack, Kim Jong-il (son of the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and later leader himself) addressed the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations and introduced a resolution asking the conference to condemn the U.S. provocation and the calling for the dissolution of the United Nations Command. The resolution passed. Readiness levels for American forces in South Korea were increased to DEFCON 3 early on August 19. Rocket and artillery attacks in the area were considered, but President Park Chung-hee did not want military action taken.

Three days later, the U.S. and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, to cut down the tree with a show of force (in photo above). These teams were accompanied by two 30-man security platoons from the Joint Security Force, who were armed with pistols and axe handles. North Korea quickly responded with about 150–200 heavily armed troops. The Yokota Air Force Base in Japan was on full alert. The North Koreans quickly disembarked from their buses and began setting up two-man machine gun positions, where they watched in silence as the tree was felled in 42 minutes. Further confrontation was avoided. The 20-foot stump of the tree was deliberately left standing. North Korea later passed on a message from Kim Il-Sung expressing regret at the incident, though not accepting responsibility.

Russel Sveda was Staff Aide to the Ambassador from 1975-1977; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in June, 2000. Paul Cleveland was the Political-Military Officer at Embassy Seoul from 1973-1977. He was interviewed by Thomas Stern beginning October 1995. John Kelley was a Political Officer in Seoul from 1975-1978; he was interviewed by  Kennedy beginning May 1996.


“The North Koreans took the ax that they were using and axed them to death”

Joint_Security_Area_1976_mapSVEDA:  Tom Stern was acting ambassador at the time that the Panmunjom chopping incident occurred. I was the ambassador’s staff aide. This happened in August of 1976. It happened just a week before President Ford was to go to the Republican Convention and face off against Governor Ronald Reagan for the nomination. So, President Ford had to look strong. One day in early August, the North Korean guards at Panmunjom, the treaty village that was between North and South Korea, had killed two of our officers. They had hatcheted them to death, axed them to death, for trimming a tree that blocked the view of one of our guard posts from another guard post. They just trimmed some leaves.

The North Koreans took the ax that they were using to trim the tree with and axed them to death. We had that on camera because of a number of incidents that had occurred already. All the soldiers there, just for their own safety, carried cameras so that any incidents would be recorded. So, we had it all on camera. There was no way the North Koreans could deny that.

It was really marvelous from my standpoint as a staff aide to see how the American government deals with a major crisis like that. Obviously, from the Thursday on which it began to the Saturday on which it ended, this crisis was primarily a military crisis. We had a lot of meetings with the commander of the 8th U.S. Army, who was a very fine commander. We knew of all the military plans that existed in case this incident got out of hand. But I also watched what the State Department could do in a crisis like this. It’s never obvious, but what the State Department does and did in this case was to consult with the Soviet Union, with China, with Japan, with the other powers that might be interested in the region — European powers such as Great Britain — and find out whether they had backed the North Koreans (the Chinese or the Soviets) and whether they would object to a stern military action.

The Chinese and the Soviets both said they would not, they had no interest in this whatsoever and they really wanted to stay clear and they had no interest whatsoever in anything that the United States would do. So, knowing that our coast was clear, the plan was, on Saturday morning, if approved, to go in and chop down the tree with 200 commandos. If the North Koreans had objected, we had 2,000 more commandos who had been flown in from the Pacific Fleet, which was off the coast of Korea, and there were a number of bombers that were ready to bomb their harbors if the North Koreans started anything. Of course, we had the 40,000 American soldiers who were stationed in Korea on full alert and we also had the millions of South Korean soldiers in full battle mode….

“It was clear to Washington that General Stilwell was moving ahead of the policy planners”

CLEVELAND:  As soon as I heard about it, I headed for Yongsan [garrison] to the command post. As I mentioned earlier, this came as second nature to me; any problem in the DMZ would send me racing to the command center. I set up a post, so to speak, in [Commander U.S. Forces in Korea, General Richard] Stilwell’s outer office. I was concerned from the beginning that Stilwell was taking a very hard line and preparing a retaliatory strike. In a way I did not blame him. I well remember that photographs of the murdered officers came to the office; they were horrendous because these guys had been beaten to death. I had never seen such brutality in my life. It was a very tense situation.

I immediately phoned Washington — Phil Mayhew, the deputy director of the office of Korean Affairs. I also called Tom Stern, the Chargé, to bring him up to date. But Stilwell’s view was of increasing concern to me. I felt that this was the kind of situation that cried for civilian control in Seoul and Washington. I don’t remember Stilwell ever issuing orders for retaliatory action, but he was certainly planning for something — and rather quickly. My continual reporting by phone was welcomed in Washington where obviously many people were seeking information.

At one point, Stilwell became quite angry because he found out that I was reporting events in real time. I explained to him that I was on the phone with my colleague in the Department in Washington; he really could not object to that. I do not remember in any detail what Stilwell’s plans were, but it became later clear that he was moving further and faster than Washington wished. I think it was clear to Washington that Stilwell was moving ahead of the policy planners.

gen stilwellTo the best of my recollection, Stilwell (at right) was preparing to have troops move north toward the DMZ, ready to take action. I was most concerned about Stilwell’s mindset more than his actions. From the beginning, I agreed that the North had obviously exceeded acceptable limits, but the U.S. military’s posture seemed one of revenge. I had serious doubts about that approach in an already abnormally tense situation. Subsequently, a couple of weeks later, Sneider returned from vacation and then there was some “strong” dialogue between the Ambassador and the CINC.

I certainly had no objections to the Command’s wish, expressed almost from the beginning, to restart the tree cutting effort. It was clear to me that we had to enforce our rights in the DMZ and that meant going back to the tree and cutting the limbs that were obstructing our view. That was a perfectly legal activity and I think it was right and proper that we follow up on it and finish the job.

I think people have to understand that in this instance the first 24-48 hours were primarily devoted to fact-gathering. The first information received was certainly fragmented and it took the Command some time to nail down the sequence of events. But I remained at the command post off and on for several days, monitoring and reporting the information that was being collected and the plans of the military. I was certainly in accord with the Command on finishing the tree trimming exercise, but I was very reluctant to see us go beyond that, unless further provoked by North Korean troops. The Command was right in being prepared to take further action if provoked, but I did not think it appropriate for us to do anything more initially then to finish the tree trimming task.

I have some recollection of Stilwell being quite frustrated by the short-leash that Washington had placed on him. In fact, the Command was on the phone continually to JCS, which dictated every troop movement. I think that tight control stemmed from Washington’s early awareness of the tense situation that had developed on the Korean Peninsula. I think Washington was also very aware of the risks involved in any precipitous action and the need to move in a deliberate and thoughtful way.

I mentioned that when [Ambassador] Sneider returned from vacation — he was ordered back by [previous Ambassador to South Korea and then Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs] Phil Habib — there was a confrontation between him and Stilwell. Dick Sneider was highly agitated and very determined from the minute he landed in Seoul that he would now take charge of the US policy and operations in Korea. This attitude was consistent with Dick’s general view of his role in Seoul to begin with; furthermore, I don’t think he was too happy to have his precious summer vacation disrupted.

Tense words between the General and the Ambassador

I remember quite clearly the first meeting that Sneider and Stilwell held after Dick’s return from Washington. It took place in the CINC’s bunker. There were, I believe, at least 25 people in the room, including a number of Korean generals. The Korean military were sitting along one side of a rectangular table; Sneider sat directly on the opposite side. Stilwell occupied one other side and his staff sat opposite him. Stilwell began with a briefing; he then went on to talk about his views. At that point Sneider exploded; he was “loaded for bear”. He obviously intended to take control of the situation and to make it clear to everyone that he was in charge of all U.S. operations in Korea.

As I said, he erupted in anger and then Stilwell responded in kind. At that point, a colonel — whom I considered to be one of the smartest U.S. officers I had ever met — who was standing behind Stilwell in the doorway, intervened. He suggested that the meeting be adjourned and that Sneider and Stilwell continue their confrontation privately in an adjoining room. That took the principals aback; but they agreed and went into the separate room. I considered the colonel’s intervention not only appropriate, but also courageous since he publicly reminded the two principals that their public behavior was not really appropriate.

Park chung HeeSo Sneider and Stilwell — alone — retired to the back room; I suspect that Sneider continued to emphasize his predominance. Stilwell had no choice except to acquiesce; he had to acknowledge that the Ambassador was the personal representative of the President and therefore the top dog in the country. I think that session put issues back on the track and after that, we didn’t have any more reservations about the CINC and his views. I can well remember the faces of the Korean officers to whom civilian control of the military was a foreign concept; in Korea in those days, the roles were reversed. So they were surprised and amazed by the exchange between the Ambassador and the CINC. I have no doubt that [at left, South Korean President] Park Chung-hee had a full report of what had transcribed within minutes of the meeting breaking up. I don’t think anyone could have left the Command that day with any doubts on the role of a civilian ambassador even in a semi-military situation.

I could not know who had actually ordered the attack on the American military contingent that was sent to trim the tree. The question of whether it was just a sergeant or whether it came from higher up is still unknown today, but I had no doubt that the attack was planned before the event ever took place. The North Korean troops had been brought to the site in a truck, who at someone’s command jumped out and set upon the American contingent with axe handles. It was obviously a calculated move which had not been decided on the spur of the moment.

In any case, the North Korean action was a serious breach of the Armistice Agreement. The provision of that Agreement clearly gave us the authority to trim or remove any obstruction of our view of all areas within Panmunjom, “the Peace Village.” The tree had grown and spread so that our observers could not view the “Bridge of No-Return” and the guard boxes that were placed at the bridge. Our military had notified the North Koreans ahead of time of our intentions and the reasons for our action. There may have been some objections from the North — I believe that the tree all of a sudden became “holy” and therefore untouchable, but we were well within our legal rights to trim the tree.

So it was not surprising that our contingent was taken by surprise by these North Korean troops — at least a dozen of them. It was an illegal and brutal act by the North Koreans — fully captured on film by the way — which resulted in the death of two American officers who were beaten with axe handles. I have no doubt that it was planned and prepared by the North Koreans. But I don’t believe that any of us had any solid information to estimate who had given the orders. I think, even today, that the order probably came from fairly senior levels. North Korean sergeants do not take actions of this nature on their own. It was an incident that drew world attention and concern and I think it must have been authorized fairly high in the chain of command.

A War — Averted

KELLEY:  [The Ambassador] was concerned that we weren’t being tough enough and we weren’t being supportive enough. And also he was concerned about what the South Koreans would want to do by way of reaction, they were incensed, of course, and didn’t want to have their noses rubbed in this incident by the North Koreans. They wanted revenge. Our military wanted revenge. We at the political level understood that our reaction had to be controlled but had to be seen by the American and South Korean forces as tough and appropriate to the circumstances. This was all worked out between the U.S. military command and the Embassy at the highest levels.

We took tremendous precautions to make sure that the North Korean reaction, both the immediate reaction and the ultimate reaction, whatever it might be, could be contained. We put U.S. and South Korean forces on a very high level of alert, as soon as this incident happened. We kept them on alert throughout our responses. We mobilized forces that we knew to be overwhelming on our side from outside of the demilitarized zone, both South Korean and American. We moved this force into the demilitarized zone.

DMZ_incident_treeWe neutralized all of the North Korean check points (which we considered to be illegal check points that had been installed by the North Koreans within the zone, where they could drop barriers and stop our movement within the jointly controlled zone) so that they couldn’t react. The plan was to go in and to saw off all of those barriers, to remove them physically, and at the same time to chop this tree down to a nub. [Note: The tree, at left, was left standing and finally replaced by a monument in 1987.)  The tree had become a symbol and so the idea was not to leave any part of it standing, not to just trim it, which had been our original objective.

At the same time we made sure we had a sufficiently powerful force to block any North Korean move to interfere with this action. We had air forces prepared to intervene if necessary, as well as a very large, powerful force, which we knew to be superior to anything the North Koreans had immediately available to respond with. We moved in and took up blocking positions to block the bridge that the North Koreans had come across the first time when the incident took place.

We took other forces through the barriers and sawed off the barriers and the South Koreans were with our forces and they had hand grenades with them, they tossed them into the guard posts and blew the guard posts up. They wanted to kill some North Koreans, but fortunately there were no North Koreans in the guard posts. There was no North Korean reaction. The North Koreans did not budge, did not move a muscle.

SVEDA:  My role in that as staff aide was to do briefing books. Ambassador Sneider, who was in New York on home leave, I guess, would be coming soon and I needed to brief him on everything. I had to do briefing books for him and briefing books for everybody. I was up for 48 or 72 hours straight. When I was finally finishing the final briefing book, which must have been about 2:00 am, I got a message from the communicator that was “eyes only” for the acting ambassador. I could either call in Tom Stern or I could go with an armed guard to his residence to deliver the envelope to him. I called Tom and he said, “Oh, don’t bother with the armed guard. I’ll come in.”

He comes in and I hand him the envelope. I simply asked, “Is it what I think it is?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “What I meant was, is it an order to go to war?” I didn’t state that and he didn’t state anything, but he said, “Yes, it is what you think it is.”

I said, “Well, goodness, should I bother to go to bed if we’re going to start this at dawn?”

He said, “Well, if something happens, I can assure you, you will hear it. So, why don’t you go to bed? You need the sleep and there is nothing you can do beyond this anyway.”

So, that morning, I woke up late. I knew that the action was to begin at dawn. It was 11:00 am and I was very, very happy that I didn’t hear firing in the distance or anything….

CLEVELAND:  The whole incident was concluded essentially by us finishing the tree trimming. Tensions cooled after we had taken action, although we were prepared for the worst when our troops went back in with their shears and saws. Of course, the word “cooled” has to be seen in the DMZ context where tensions always ran high.

Q: Was the feeling there or thereafter that the North Koreans felt that things had gotten out of control?

KELLEY: That was our analysis. We think that the North Korean highest command was alarmed at the way that their forces had behaved, but they couldn’t acknowledge that, they couldn’t indicate to anybody that they were alarmed. They couldn’t express any lack of faith and trust in the military forces because, the military forces would have lost face. But it was pretty clear that they were sending people from Hungnam down to the DMZ.

The whole issue was bumped up to a very high level within North Korea. They were sending people down to the DMZ who had much more authority then those who had originally been in place there, particularly the military. We could see North Korean officers in the DMZ who had been particularly difficult being removed from the scene, or if not being removed from the scene, being downgraded, being superseded by other people. On the one hand they had applauded and decorated the people who were in charge, on the other hand there were clearly people being moved into position on the ground in the units that were immediately adjacent to the joint control area who were giving orders to the people who had been there before.

Q: What was the reaction to our reaction and what we were doing, from the South Korean military and civilians? The people you were in contact with?

KELLEY: Initial reaction was euphoric, once we responded. There was alarm, concern, trepidation, anger–every imaginable reaction–before we responded. There were demands for all kinds of retaliation. Then when we did react there was a sense of relief that we had responded extremely forcefully. There was some grumbling that we hadn’t been tough enough, but the nature of South Korea at the time was acceptance of authority, and the authorities had decided that this was the way that they were going to deal with it and the response to this dissipated concern and provided reassurance. The people who would have advocated much stronger reactions didn’t do so after that.


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