In 1976, North Korea and America Almost Went to War Over Chopping Down a Tree

    Michael Peck


    Yes, this is a true story. 

    Hardly an intimidating display of strength. But what stunned the North Korean guards was the line of AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters hovering on the South Korean side of the border. Behind the Cobras were B-52s escorted by U.S. and South Korean F-4 and F-5 fighters. On airfields in South Korea were F-111 strike jets supported by more fighters, while a U.S. aircraft carrier had moved into the area. On the ground and ready to support the new work party were U.S. infantry, armor and artillery.

    The American and South Korean soldiers went off to chop down a poplar tree.

    Instead, they were chopped into pieces by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers. And what should have been a case of routine landscaping nearly triggered a second Korean War.

    Thousands of lives could have been lost, and the Korean peninsula devastated as it had been in 1950. All because of a tree, a hot-tempered North Korean lieutenant and the most heavily armed border zone on Earth.

    The tale begins on the morning of August 18, 1976, when a United Nations Command work party entered the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Their mission was to trim the branches of a poplar tree that was obscuring the view of UNC observers monitoring the Joint Security Area.

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