The Atlantic

The ‘God Damn’ Tree That Nearly Brought America and North Korea to War

In 1976, two American soldiers were axed to death over a poplar tree. What came next threatened to change the course of history.
Source: Bill Ferguson / Wikimedia / The Atlantic

PANMUNJOM, South Korea—Meters from where the leaders of North and South Korea recently planted a pine tree to memorialize their blossoming bid for peace, North Korean soldiers once crushed the skulls of two U.S. soldiers with the blunt end of their axe heads. The attack came after the Americans tried to trim a poplar tree. The men’s disfigured bodies were left beside the tree.

In May, just days after the spectacular inter-Korean summit had occurred there, I visited the truce village of Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area, on the border between North and South Korea. The atmosphere was like that of a church the morning after a wedding where, but for some stray flowers and a forgotten shawl, there is no sign of the previous evening’s festivities—just an austere sanctuary. The pine tree of peace, at one end of a row of blue and silver conference buildings for negotiators, was propped up by what appeared to be wooden support rods, a rather too on-the-nose metaphor for the shaky state of diplomacy with North Korea. Flanked by a trio of stone-faced South Korean guards staring into North Korea, flies buzzed about the cracked concrete slab that Kim Jong Un had crossed to become the first North Korean leader to step into the South.

North Korea had shut off its propaganda loudspeaker around the time of the summit, which made the place “considerably less surreal,” Matt Farmer, the commander of the United Nations Command Security Battalion, which represents the U.S. and South Korea in the Joint Security Area, told me at the site of the axe murders. But, he said, “we’ll always be steady and we’ll always be ready … in case something changes.” Being there, I had the gnawing feeling that something might—that I was still standing at the last front of the Cold War, not the new frontier for a peaceful and denuclearized Korean peninsula. Not yet.

“When you get [to the Joint Security Area], you’ll see how easy it is for something small to flare up into something bigger if you allow it to spread,” Farmer had warned me before I made the hour’s drive from the headquarters of U.S. Forces Korea in Seoul to the Demilitarized Zone, past countless guard posts, rings of barbed wire, and aspirational highway signs for “Pyongyang.” John Burzynski, the deputy secretary and international-relations adviser at the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission, which supervises the 1953 ceasefire that halted the Korean War had offered another tip. The Korean peninsula, he counseled, is “a spontaneous place.”

* * *

When the axe attack occurred, in 1976, Kim Jong Un hadn’t yet been born. was, at Donald Trump as a rising, Robert Redford–esque real-estate promoter with “flair” and “dazzling white teeth.” As for Moon Jae-in, the current president of South Korea, he was serving as a corporal in a special-forces brigade that would later help avenge the murders by carrying out the most elaborate and dangerous tree-cutting operation in historyan act that brought the United States and North Korea closer to all-out conflict than they have been at any other time since the end of the Korean War. Moon “experienced what being on the brink of a war was actually like,” the South Korean president’s office told me. Moon, who high alert but didn’t directly participate in the operation, that his patriotism and convictions about how to ensure South Korea’s security were forged at this very moment.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic5 min readPsychology
Apes Might Know That You Don’t Know What They Know
The latest volley in a decades-long debate about apes’ theory of mind involved one scientist dressing up as King Kong and stealing from his colleague.
The Atlantic6 min readPolitics
So Has the Green New Deal Won Yet?
Maybe Jeff Bezos, of all people, put it best. Asked whether he supported the Green New Deal, the chief executive of one of the country’s most carbon-intensive technology companies waved the question off. “There are a lot of different ideas for what t
The Atlantic7 min readPolitics
Stop Waiting For A Savior
A public once enamored of Robert Mueller now turns its eyes to a cadre of career diplomats.