In 1976, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States almost went to war over a single tree.
Okay, this one is a bit nuts, so buckle in.
The Demilitarized Zone lies between North and South Korea. It’s four kilometres wide and runs the entire length of the border. It’s supposed to serve as a buffer between the two countries. Most of its expanse is devoid of human life – although endangered animals are doing very well apparently! Honestly, there are so many interesting things I could write about this zone: the surprising wildlife, the secret tunnels, the loudspeaker propaganda, the balloons, the world’s tallest flagpole, the abandoned villages, the ancient ruined castles…
But today, I’m writing about a poplar tree. One tree. One single solitary tree. Not a big deal, except that it was a tree in the Joint Security Area (JSA), the one bit of the border that can be entered by both North and South Korea. The point of the JSA is to have a place where officials from both sides can meet and talk. I wish they had met and talked about this damn tree.
The poplar was blocking the view from one command post to another. So fifteen troops from South Korea and the United States, along with five South Korean workers, entered the JSA to give it a bit of a trim. The workers got to work, trimming the tree with axes.
Enter Pak Chul, a North Korean army officer. He was quite notorious for being confrontational and impulsive. He and his men watched the arboriculturists at work for a full quarter hour. Then Pak Chul decided to cause trouble. He announced that the tree had been planted by the leader of North Korea and so could not be touched. He was ignored.
Pak Chul did not like to be ignored. He shouted an order to his men: “kill the bastards.” They grabbed axes from the workers and attacked. Two American soldiers were killed; the workers and the rest of the troops retreated back south.
What could the United States do? They didn’t want all-out war over a single tree, but nor could they let this pass without comment. It demanded a reaction. More specifically, it demanded an overreaction.
Three days later, at 7 in the morning, the Americans and South Koreans struck. Without warning, they flooded into the Demilitarized Zone with
- 23 vehicles
- 16 military engineers with chainsaws
- 60 army personnel armed with pistols and axe handles
- 64 South Korean “black berets” trained in taekwondo and bearing clubs, M16s, and grenade launchers. Some of them had claymore mines strapped to their chests
- 27 helicopters bearing another company of US infantry
A tank pointed its gun into the JSA; B-52s, supersonic jets, and nuclear-capable bombers circled overhead. Behind the lines, thousands more infantry, marines, and an aircraft carrier were on alert…
On the North Korean side, there was one manned lookout post. I bet they were petrified.
So, what did this enormous army do? They trimmed the hell out of that tree. Forty-two minutes later, only the stump remained (see the picture above) and the force departed. And North Korea? They actually apologized – well, they expressed regret about the inciting incident.
One curious endnote: one of the troops involved in this little stoush is the current president of South Korea.
[Thanks to Gareth E. for suggesting this topic.]