The North Koreans attacked in an instant, forcing U.S. Captain Arthur G. Bonifas to the ground. Five soldiers crowded around the stunned American officer, hitting him in the head with clubs and axe handles until his body lay motionless, his face bloodied beyond recognition.
Captain Bonifas, married with a son, was scheduled to go home three days later.
In the course of those events, UN and South Korean personnel fled in all directions. U.S. First Lieutenant Mark T. Barrett jumped over a small wall in the Joint Security Area as North Korean soldiers gave chase. Hidden from view of the UN side, Barrett was overwhelmed in a grassy field and beaten to the point of death. He died a short while later from head trauma.
It happened on a hot August morning after ten UN soldiers and five Korean workers entered the Joint Security Area [JSA] of Panmunjom to trim a large poplar tree obstructing the south’s view. Firearms were forbidden in the truce area, and the work detail was unarmed.
Inexplicably, Bonifas’s crew was never told that an earlier attempt to trim the same tree on August 6 had halted after North Korean soldiers threatened South Korean workers. The day before that, Pyongyang had also issued an especially belligerent warning, accusing the United States and South Korea of preparing “to directly ignite the fuse of war” on the peninsula.
American soldiers in Korea were never told of these escalating tensions.
Alas, as the work detail began trimming the poplar tree on August 18, they were relatively unconcerned when eleven North Korean soldiers arrived on the scene.
Fifteen minutes passed.
Then suddenly, North Korean officer Lt. Pak Chul—nicknamed “Bulldog” by the Americans—ordered the UN work detail to stop. Captain Bonifas shrugged off the demand, prompting Pak to send a messenger back to the North’s side.
A truck arrived minutes later with twenty additional North Korean soldiers—armed with metal pipes and clubs.
Pak demanded the pruning stop a second time. “‘The branches that are cut,’” he told Captain Bonifas, “‘will be of no use, just as you will be after you die.’”
The North Koreans slowly encircled the work detail.
Captain Bonifas, no stranger to bellicose threats from “Bulldog,” turned his back and assured his men nothing would happen. No U.S. soldier, he knew, had died at Panmunjom since the truce zone was created during the Korean War.
With Bonifas facing away, the North Korean officer took off his wristwatch and placed it in his pocket—lest it get bloody—and screamed: “Kill!” (죽어), striking the American captain as his soldiers rushed the outnumbered UN team.
Bonifas and Barrett subsequently lost their lives, but the rest managed to break away from a barrage of metal clubs and grasping North Korean hands for the safety of their own lines. Eight UN members were beaten severely in the process.
“Vicious and unprovoked murder”—that’s how U.S. President Gerald R. Ford described the events of that day.
Indeed, the incident bewildered, and enraged, the American public. “North Korea’s die-hard Stalinist government has stooped to a new low in barbarism,” the New York Times argued in an editorial entitled: “Pick-Axe Diplomacy.” The attack, Don Oberdorfer of the Washington Post later reflected, “added immeasurably to the American perception of North Koreans as almost inhuman.”
In Pyongyang, the incident shocked even Kim Il Sung. A future defector from the North Korean government, Pak Pyong Yop, claimed that the North Korean leader knew nothing of the attack beforehand. “‘Why the hell did you do this?’” Kim demanded to know of the perpetrators in the aftermath.
The murders, Pak Pyong Yop contended, were the handiwork of the one-and-only Dear Leader: Kim Jong Il. When the UN team began pruning the tree on the 18th, the North Koreans reported the situation to the younger Kim, who allegedly told them: “‘Show them the Korean way…give the Yankees a lesson.’”
When Kim Il Sung later demanded explanations of those men, they claimed the Americans had intentionally provoked the incident.
A North Korean propaganda pamphlet attempted to bolster these claims before the international community. The pamphlet—inadvertently revealing Pyongyang’s massive inferiority complex—claimed that Bonifas’s crew had yelled “inferior nation!” and “savages!” at the North Koreans before events unfolded as follows:
A U.S. army guard officer pounced upon a security person of our side and attempted to strike him with the axe with which he had been felling the tree…The security personnel of our side put up a death-defying resistance against the enemy, defending themselves with bare hands…the enemy reinforced his force with more than 30 hooligans he had kept waiting in advance. As a result, 4 security personnel of our side were surrounded, attacked and collectively beaten by over 40 guards of the U.S. side.
The world failed to accept this feeble explanation. Photographic evidence from Panmunjom indisputably demonstrated how the incident actually occurred. What remained undecided by the evening of August 18 was how the United States would respond.
President Ford heard about the killings while at the Republican National Convention. At the White House, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger led an emergency meeting in his stead; “North Korean blood,” Kissinger emphasized, “must be spilled.”
Reviewing his options from afar, President Ford responded in a decisive, yet shrewd, manner. Any decision likely to lead to a resumption of full-scale warfare, he understood, was not an option on the Korean peninsula.
Thus, after reviewing potential military strikes against North Korea, the president ordered the deployment of a huge number of military resources to the peninsula as a demonstration of American power. And, most importantly, he agreed with other officials that the poplar tree had to go—no matter what.
All the while, the DPRK readied its populace for war. Citizens were rushed into bunkers, and the government ordered blackouts around the country. The North Korean army was put on full-alert. War seemed imminent.
What came instead was, the aptly named, Operation Paul Bunyan three days later. South Korean and American military vehicles streamed into the Joint Security Area on the morning of August 21. U.S. soldiers began removing the tree with chainsaws, as twenty-seven helicopters hovered above, daring the North Koreans to do something. B-52s and fighter planes rumbled in the skies a short distance away.
It took 42 minutes to cut down the tree, though a stump was left as a memorial to the fallen Americans.
The North Koreans watched from their side with evident fear while the team worked.
Less than sixty minutes after the tree’s removal, Kim Il Sung took steps to apologize to the United Nations Command, describing the incident as “regretful.” Four days later, Pyongyang agreed to divide the Joint Security Area between a northern and southern side to stop direct interaction between soldiers.
On August 24, Captain Bonifas was laid to rest at the United States Military Academy. His wife, Mrs. Marcia Bonifas, and son accepted a medal from the South Korean government for his service. It was woeful compensation for the loss of a husband and father.
Lt. Pak Chul, for his part, received an award from the North Korean government for the brutality of August 18, 1976. He was, like so many others, a living reminder of the dangerous volatility of a divided Korean peninsula.
- Korea Herald, Axe-Murders at Panmunjom: Seen From Abroad (Seoul: 1976).
- Narushige Michishita, North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008
- (New York: Routledge, 2010).
- Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (New York: Basic
- Books, 2001).
- Jeffrey Miller, “Panmunjom Ax Murder, 25 Years After,” Korea Times, August 18, 2001.
- On Pak Pyong Yop: Michishita, North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008, 87-89.
- On the North Korean Perspective: On the Truth of the Panmunjom Incident (Pyongyang: 1976)