How a Poplar Tree Further Divided North and South Korea
Check Point #3 used to be called “The Loneliest Outpost in the World.” It sat, unmanned, across from two North Korean outposts, smack dab in the middle of the Joint Security Area located at the intersection of the two countries. Since the end of the Korean War, the 38th parallel had again become the demarcation for where one country ended and the other began; it was clear, without any gray area. To use a metaphor, the division between North and South Korea was not at all like the separation of night and day, where there’s a long hazy middle, but instead more like the light in a room at night, how the switch can be flipped from light to dark, with no varying degrees between.
It was 1976 and the severance between the countries could not have been clearer. The only exception was the Joint Security Area, where it was possible to build a North Korean outpost right next to a South Korean one. Following the Korean War, it was decided that the JSA (Joint Security Area) would not, unlike everything else, have a strict line of demarcation for where the North should be and where the South should be. Both sides were able to move around the JSA as they wished. That said, there was an understanding, based on basic geography, on where the North and the South actually were. But the lack of any official mark in the sand would lead to some interesting decisions, and ultimately to a strange and tragic event that would eventually change everything.
United Nations Command, though they had every right to, decided that no South Korean outposts would be constructed on the northern side of the JSA. They would stay out. It was a noble decision, one based mostly around respect, and one that the North did not follow along with. The North decided that they would, conversely, construct outpost in the southern part of the JSA. They made two large outposts surrounding South Korea’s Check Point #3. This was, if nothing else, a very aggressive decision. Whereas the Check Points in the North were not in harm’s way, CP #3 was now very much in the line of fire. If conflict were to arise, CP #3 was surrounded by not just one, but two enemy outposts. To the North, this was not aggression. It was strategy. There was no rule saying they couldn’t make their outposts there, on southern ground, and so they went ahead and did.
This got the UN Command thinking. If violence was to erupt, the poor guard in CP #3 wouldn’t have a fighting chance. They decided that all military personal would be removed from CP #3. It would continue to be an active check point, but it would be empty. Seeing as there was no one there, CP #3 would then be monitored from another post – CP #5. In the winter, this was fine. A problem, though, came about in the summer.
There was a large poplar tree growing in the line of vision between CP #5 and CP #3, obscuring the South’s ability to watch their post. On August 18, 1976, UN Captain Arthur Bonifas led a group of South Korean soldiers, carrying axes, to trim the branches of the poplar tree. They were met by a group of Northern Soldiers. The North demanded that the South immediately stop pruning the branches off the tree. In response, Capt. Bonifas turned his back.
UNC Regulation 551-1 is a declaration form that any visitor to the DMZ (demilitarized zone – the border between North and South Korea) must sign. I signed it, and so did my good friend TTD, right before we went into the JSA. This is how the waiver begins:
“1. The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action. ..Although being on the alert for unexpected condition, the United Nations Command, and the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.”
Yeah, I signed that. In retrospect, a trip into the DMZ isn’t especially dangerous, although there are so many warnings, one starts to feel a bit tense. Our tour guide rambled on about all the things we should avoid doing: “Never point at the soldiers. They are highly alert. If you point your finger, they might think it’s a gun and open fire. Also, you have to leave all your bags and belongings on the bus, because if war breaks out while we’re in the JSA, bags will weigh us down as we run away.”
The gravity of the experience hits early. One of the first stops is the Freedom Bridge, where injured soldiers were taken by train from Panmunjom into the South. TTD and I walked a little ways down from the bridge. There, we encountered a huge rusted metal sign that said, “Do Not Come Closer and Do Not Take Pictures.” In the near distance was a fence with barbed wire at the top. We could see a small outpost with a soldier inside.
Behind us, there was a strip mall and a Viking Ship amusement ride. In front of us, there was nothing but land, lots of empty land covered in light brown grass. To our left, there was a display featuring an old train car, riddled with bullets from its journey across the bridge. Everything seemed to mark a war that had long passed, a moment in history, except for that sign and that soldier, and the thought of what would happen if we, filled with curiosity, stepped any closer to that barbed wire fence than what the sign allowed.
Captain Bonifas ordered the soldiers to continue trimming the tree. North Korean Senior Captain Pak Chul calmly took his watch off and put it in his pocket. Moments later, he struck Capt. Bonifas in the neck with a karate chop. After that, all hell broke loose. The South Korean soldiers dropped their axes and ran; their opposition picked up the weapons and attacked. Capt. Bonifas was killed and another UN officer – Lt. Mark Barrett – was later found badly injured in a depression covered by trees (the North Korean soldiers were taking turns, passing an ax and going down into the depression where Barrett was). Lt. Barrett would later die on a helicopter being brought to Seoul. The fight only lasted about a minute, but its ramifications are still felt strongly today.
Three days after the “Axe Murder Incident,” the UN carried out “Operation Paul Bunyan,” where the poplar tree was finally cut down. The JSA was then divided, like the rest of the Koreas. There are white markers that denote the exact line where the country is split. In addition, a short stone monument marks the place where the poplar tree once stood, and an axe used in the incident is on display in the North Korean Peace Museum.
There was one North Korean soldier. I had to squint to see him. Closer to us, five South Korean soldiers stood, their backs to us, facing the one guy off in the distance. All soldiers at the JSA are required to wear sunglasses to keep them from “eye fighting” with the opposition. We were taken down into the JSA and into the MAC Conference Room, where meetings are held by military people from both sides in order to keep the Armistice (which South Korea, to this day, has not signed). The conference room is in a small blue building. Half of it, the building, is in the North, while the other half of the building is in the South. There is a table in the center of the building where the two sides sit to have discussions. The table is also split, an invisible line running down it horizontally, marked by microphones.
For about two minutes, inside the building, I was able to walk into North Korea. It felt the same as the other side, although I tried to tell myself that it didn’t. It was significant that I was there. Yeah, it was in a building and there were guards, standing still as statues, and Kim Jong Il was nowhere to be seen, but I was in North Korea none-the-less. To think, only about thirty five years earlier, before the two sides got into an axe fight over a poplar tree, it wasn’t like this. Back then, there was at least one place that wasn’t so heavily divided. Going from one side of the room to the other, it didn’t feel separate to me, although I knew very clearly that it was.
Soon later we were taken to a gift shop, where TTD and I bought North Korean money and whisky. Then it was back off to Seoul. As our bus left the DMZ, we could see the two flag towers, quite far apart from one another, one waving the Tae Guk Gui and the other the North Korean flag. The North Korean tower was much taller than the South’s.
“Their tower is fifty meters taller than ours,” our South Korean tour guide said. “They are very proud of that. But ours is wider.”
(I would like to thank Mr. Bill Ferguson for his immense help in correcting the (many) factual errors I made when I first posted this blog. Mr. Ferguson was a soldier in the JSA during this time and was a part of Operation Paul Bunyan. He contacted me and provided amazing feedback and assistance. A HUGE thank you goes to him!)