August 19, 1976  Operation Paul Bunyan

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.

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.

General Sherman Incident

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).

kim_il-sung
Propaganda poster depicting “Dear Leader”, Kim Il-sung

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.

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View from the south side of the Joint Security Area, Korean DMZ

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.

blue-house
South Korean Executive Mansion – “Blue House”

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.

Flagpole War

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.

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Lieutenant Pak Chul

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.

Axe Murder Incident

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.cpt_bonifas

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.Lt._Mark_Barrett

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.

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Korean DMZ ‘Incident Tree’

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.

Most Dangerous Hole

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December 28, 1955 Juche

The nuclear relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and the man who banished Christmas and ordered North Korea to worship his grandmother

We tend to look at WWII in a kind of historical box, with a beginning and an end.  In reality, we feel the effects of WWII to this day.  Just as the modern boundaries (and many of the problems) of the Middle East were shaped by WWI, the division of the Korean Peninsula was born of WWII.

Korea’s brief period of sovereignty ended in 1910, when the country was annexed by Imperial Japan. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Korea 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 called for a unified Korea, but cold war tensions hardened the separation. By 1948, the two Koreas had separate governments, each with its own diametrically opposite governing philosophy.

Kim Il-sung came to power in North Korea in 1946, nationalizing key industries and collectivizing land and other means of production. South Korea declared statehood in May 1948, under the vehemently anti-communist military strongman, Syngman Rhee.

Both governments sought control of the Korean peninsula, but the 1948-49 withdrawal of Soviet and most American forces left the south holding the weaker hand. Escalating border conflicts along the 38th parallel led to war when the North, with assurances of support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, invaded South Korea in June 1950.

koreanwar-fourmaps1200Sixteen countries sent troops to South Korea’s aid, about 90% of them Americans.  The Soviets sent material aid to the North, while Communist China sent troops. The Korean War lasted three years, causing the death or disappearance of over 2,000,000, combining military and civilian.

The Korean War ended in July 1953, though the two sides technically remain at war to this day, staring each other down over millions of land mines in a fortified demilitarized zone spanning the width of the country.

The night-time satellite image of the two Koreas, tells the story of what happened next.kim_il-sung  South Korea went through a series of military dictatorships from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, since developing into a successful Republic.  In the North, Kim Il-sung built a communist hellhole, a cult of personality established under a North Korean ideology known as “Juche”, (JOO-chay).

The term translates as “independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance”, its first known reference in a speech given by Kim Il-sung on December 28, 1955.  Theoretically based on independent thought, economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance in defense, “independence” applies to the collective, not to the individual, from whom absolute loyalty to the revolutionary party leader is required.  In practice, this principle puts one man at the center and above it all.  According to recent amendments to the North Korean constitution, that man will always be a well-fed member of the Kim family.

Son of the founder of the Juche Ideal, Kim Jung-il, was a well-known film buff. In a movepulgasari that would make Caligula blush, he had South Korean film maker Shin Sang-ok kidnapped along with his actress ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee. After four years spent starving in a North Korean gulag, the couple accepted Kim’s “suggestion” that they re-marry and go to work for him, producing the less-than-box-office-smash “Pulgasari”, a kind of North Korean Godzilla film.

The couple escaped, unlike dozens of South Korean and Japanese unfortunates “recruited” with the help of a chloroform soaked rag.

ryugyong-hotelNorth Korea broke ground on what foreign media called “the worst building in the world” in 1987, just in time for the Seoul Olympics the following year. With 105 stories and eight revolving floors, the Ryugyong would have been the tallest hotel in the world, if it ever opened.  Construction shut down in 1992, partly because Soviet funding dried up, and partly because construction was so bad that it’s unsafe to stand within 10 blocks of the thing.  In 2008, Orascom Telecom of Egypt agreed to spend $180 million to put glass on the outside, in exchange for a $400 million contract to build the nation’s first 3G cellular network.  Whether there will ever be more than one customer, is unclear.   Perhaps 2017 will be the year that the Ryugyong becomes more than the world’s largest telecommunications antenna, but so far the place remains “too popular to take reservations”.

north-korean-prison-concentration-camp-life-04Anywhere from 1 to 3 million North Koreans starved to death during the ‘90s, while it’s estimated that one in every hundred North Korean citizens are incarcerated in a system of gulags, torture chambers and concentration camps.

As of 2010, the North Korean Military had 7,679,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel, in a nation of 25,000,000. Over 30% of the nation’s population, and absorbing almost 21% of GDP. Today, that military is under the personal control of a 32 year old who had his own uncle Jang Song-thaek executed, presumably by anti-aircraft machine gun fire, before being incinerated by flame thrower. The same method used to kill two of Mr. Jang’s associates, a week earlier. The New York Times reports that the execution was for a coup plot, but others say he didn’t clap his hands long enough and with the right amount of enthusiasm, over some pronouncement of the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jung-un. The same Dear Leader who controls the nuclear arsenal.kim-jong-un

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea have had more or less “normal” relations, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  The relationship isn’t all moonbeams and lollipops, the DPRK sought relations with Baghdad throughout the Iran-Iraq War.  The IRI maintains relations with South Korea as well, but a cordial hatred for the United States has always kept the two united.

Authorities warned the nation of yet another impending famine in March 2016, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun editorializing that “We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again.”

The Obama administration recently concluded a nuclear “deal” with Iran, secretly sealed with pallet loads of taxpayer cash.  CIA Director John Brennan conceded in September that his agency is “monitoring” whether North Korea is providing Iran with clandestine nuclear assistance.  It doesn’t seem a stretch, there have been arms sales and “peaceful nuclear cooperation” between the two since the 1980s. The nuclear relationship between the two is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and the man who banished Christmas and ordered North Korea to worship his grandmother.   I cannot imagine what could go wrong.