North Korea's rare face-to-face held in 'truce village' where Americans once were murdered

The history of the so-called “Truce Village” where North and South Koreans held a rare face-to-face meeting on Tuesday has a history that belies its name, and includes the murder of two American troops by North Korea soldiers — the result of an operation that began with the attempted trimming of an overgrown tree.

The so-called “Axe Murder Incident” took place in August 1976, when a U.S. military team was sent into the Joint Security Area (JSA) to trim a tree that blocked the view of a U.N. command post and border crossing known as the Bridge of No Return. Capt. Arthur G. Bonifas and First Lt. Mark T. Barrett, who were part of the team sent in for the trimming, were killed after being swarmed by North Korean troops attempting to stop the operation — on the grounds the tree had been planted and nurtured by former North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung himself.

The chaotic scene was largely captured on-camera since it unfolded in the heavily scrutinized JSA. In an interview, one diplomatic official suggested “the North Koreans took the ax that (the two soldiers) were using to trim the tree with and axed them to death.”

President Gerald Ford condemned the killings, and promised North Korea would be responsible for whatever “consequences” might follow. But Ford stopped short of taking offensive military action, choosing instead to send a force to cut down the tree without warning - and with a heavily armed backup force. According to a National Security Council memo from the time, that plan was undertaken despite one serious concern: “that the North Koreans might still have time to react — and with a force larger than the rules permit.”

As part of the appropriately named Operation Paul Bunyan, the U.S. declared a heightened level of U.S. military preparedness, DEFCON 3. The Americans also mobilized a massive convoy, even scrambling a squadron of F-4 fighters overhead. While North Korea responded with a convoy of its own, it did not intervene. The tree removal was completed in less than an hour — and without a single shot fired.

The scene was revisited in 2012, when U.S. soldiers were assigned to what was reportedly the first tree trimming operation in Panmunjom since the 1976 incident. According to an account of the events from 1st Lt. Christopher A. Taylor, “every member of the EOD team and all Soldiers with the Security Battalion kept the memory in mind of the last major trimming operations in 1976.”

The Truce Village is where the Korean War Armistice Agreement of 1953 was signed, an agreement that was seen as an effective end of the Korean War, and one that the established lines of demarcation and the demilitarized zone now referred to as the DMZ. The JSA is the only location in the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers actually stand face-to-face, and is the backdrop for countless photo ops of visiting politicians, and more recently a slew of North Korean defectors.