The current impasse with North Korea has died down for the time being, but the Korean peninsula is no stranger to conflict. 16th and 17th century Manchu and Japanese invasions brought about a sense of Korean isolationism, leading many to describe the place as a “Hermit Kingdom”. The tendency became more pronounced in the 19th century, as Koreans witnessed the colonization of China to the north, and its humiliation in two opium wars.
The July 1866 General Sherman incident resulted in the death of all 20 officers and crew and the destruction of an American armed merchant marine side-wheel steamer, leading to the U.S. Navy’s 1871 expedition to the Kingdom of Joseon (Chosŏn), the Shinmiyangyo. The expedition would result in the death of about 300 Korean soldiers and three Americans.
US-Korean relations soured in 1905 in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, when the U.S. recognized Korea as falling into the Japanese “sphere of influence”.
Korean nationalists were dismayed in 1910, with the Japanese annexation of the Korean Peninsula. Woodrow Wilson’s high-sounding principles of national self-determination bypassed the Hermit Kingdom, leaving Koreans with virtually no role in their own internal administration.
Following the Japanese defeat in WWII, the Korean peninsula was divided into two occupied zones: the north held by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States. The Cairo declaration of 1943 had called for a unified Korea, its division along the 38th parallel intended to be temporary. It wasn’t meant to be. Kim Il-sung came to power in North Korea in 1946, nationalizing key industries and collectivizing land, haranguing his countrymen about the “spirit of self-reliance” he called Juche, (JOO-chay).
South Korea declared statehood in May 1948, under the vehemently anti-communist military strongman, Syngman Rhee.
The 1948-49 withdrawal of Soviet and most American forces left the south holding the weaker hand. Escalating border conflicts led to war when the North, with assurances of support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, invaded South Korea in June 1950.
Within days, the United States secured a United Nations resolution, calling for the defense of South Korea against North Korean aggression. Sixteen countries sent troops to South Korea’s aid. 90% of them were Americans.
American intervention turned the tide. US and South Korean forces crossed the North Korean border in November 1951, pressing north toward the Chinese border. Hundreds of thousands of troops from the People’s Republic of China poured across the border in December, mounting heavy assaults against allied forces and converting what had been a war of movement, into a brutal stalemate and war of attrition.
Republican Dwight David Eisenhower won decisively in the 1952 Presidential election, a contest which turned heavily on foreign policy. It wasn’t long before President Eisenhower’s public hints of nuclear escalation brought all sides to the negotiating table.
33,741 Americans lost their lives in the Korean war. Total casualties including North and South Korea, China and United Nations forces, military and civilian, number some 2.8 million.
An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, a new border drawn between North and South Korea, giving South Korea additional territory and creating a “demilitarized zone” between the two nations. WWIII had been averted, though the two sides technically remain at war, to this day.
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) and the Republic of Korea (South), has been the focal point of cold war tension, ever since.
The Korean DMZ conflict of 1966–69 culminated in the Blue House Raid of 1968, the attempted assassination of ROK President Park Chung-hee by North Korean commandos. This period saw a series of skirmishes along the DMZ, resulting in the death of 43 Americans, 299 South Koreans and 397 North Koreans.
Some such episodes are borderline comical, such as the “mine is bigger than yours” tit-for-tat known as the “flagpole war” of the 1980s. The South Korean government built a 323′ flagpole flying a huge, 287lb ROK flag in Daeseong-dong, 350 meters from the line of demarcation. Not to be outdone, DPRK government officials erected a 525′ flagpole in Kijŏng-dong, flying a 595lb flag of North Korea. As of 2014, the DPRK pole remains the 4th tallest flagpole, in the world.
Other episodes are distinctly un-funny, such as the 1976 axe murders of two American Army officers.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) lies within the village of Panmunjom, the only piece of the DMZ where North and South Korean guards stand face-to-face. There the “Bridge of No Return” crosses the border, the Military Demarcation Line running across its center. Here, POWs were brought from both sides, and given their final ultimatum. They could stay in the country of their captivity or cross that bridge and return to their homeland. They could never come back.
The bridge was last used for prisoner exchange in 1968, when the crew of USS Pueblo was released and ordered to cross into South Korea.
Visible only during winter months, command Post #3, near the Bridge of No Return, has been called the “loneliest outpost in the world”. On numerous occasions, North Korean troops have taken advantage of this isolation, attempting to grab United Nations Command personnel and drag them across the bridge into North Korean territory.
On August 18, 1976, five Korean Service Corps (KSC) personnel entered the JSA, escorted by US Army Captain Arthur Bonifas, his ROK counterpart Captain Kim, area platoon leader First Lieutenant Mark Barrett, and 11 American and South Korean enlisted personnel.
15 North Korean soldiers appeared, commanded by Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul, whom UNC soldiers called “Lt. Bulldog” based on his confrontational history. Lt. Pak ordered the UNC to cease tree trimming, “because Kim Il-sung personally planted it and nourished it and it’s growing under his supervision.” Captain Bonifas turned his back on the North Koreans, ordering the detail to continue. That’s when the stuff hit the fan.
Another 20 North Korean soldiers crossed the bridge, carrying crowbars and clubs. Lt. Pak removed his watch, wrapped it in a handkerchief, placed it in his pocket, and shouted, “Kill the bastards!”.
When it was over, Captain Bonifas and First Lieutenant Barrett were dead, hacked to death with axes dropped by the tree-trimmers. All but one of the UNC guards were injured. Within hours, Kim Jong-il, son of “Dear Leader” Kim Il-sung, described the incident as an unprovoked incident in which American officers attacked North Korean guards.
The CIA believed the whole episode to have been pre-planned. American forces in South Korea were moved to DEFCON 3 on August 19. Two days later, the show of force response called “Operation Paul Bunyan”, descended like a biblical plague, on the North Korean outpost.
At 7:00am on August 21, 23 American and South Korean vehicles drove into the JSA with chainsaws, 753 troops escorted by two 30-man security platoons, armed with pistols and axe handles. This was no tree trimming operation.
64 South Korean Special Forces brandished M16 rifles and M79 grenade launchers. Lethally effective elite soldiers, they taunted the North Koreans, daring them to cross the bridge. Several had Claymore mines strapped to their chests, firing mechanisms at the ready.
20 utility helicopters and seven Cobra attack choppers circled overhead, behind them F-4 Phantom IIs and nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortresses.
12,000 additional troops were ordered to Korea, including 1,800 Marines from Okinawa. At Yokota Air Base in Japan, a dozen C-130s stood “nose to tail”, ready to provide back-up. Air bases from Guam to Idaho were on full alert. The entire USS Midway carrier task force, stood offshore.
“Minds blown” by this show of force, North Korea responded with 150-200 troops of its own, but did little but look on at the proceedings.
42 minutes later, all that remained of dear leader’s tree was a 20’ stump, deliberately left to aggravate North Korean sensibilities.
Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Barrett were posthumously promoted to the ranks of Major and Captain, respectively. Today, Camp Bonifas is home to the United Nations Command Security Battalion – Joint Security Area, whose mission it is to monitor and enforce the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 in the no-man’s land between North and South Korea.
Camp Bonifas is home to a one-hole, “par 3” AstroTurf patch, surrounded on three sides by minefields. Sports Illustrated has called it “the most dangerous hole in golf”. There is at least one report of an errant shot exploding a land mine. How nice it is that a sense of humor can survive, even in this wretched place.