The most dramatic moments of the event were crammed into less than 72 hours. The crisis started late in the morning of August 18 (Korea time) and was mostly resolved by 8 a.m. on August 21. It ranks as one of the fastest developing, most obscure DEFCON alerts ever authorized by the National Command Authorities.
The cause of the crisis was a tree. It stood in the Joint Security Area, a roughly circular patch of buildings, roads, and observation posts near Panmunjom that was patrolled by the North Korean People’s Army and United Nations Command. The UN Command was staffed by elite troops from the South Korean and U.S. armies, selected for size, toughness, and discipline. Each side kept hundreds of heavily armed troops in barracks a short distance away to respond to firefights, but in the JSA itself, UN and North Korean troops were banned from carrying weapons more powerful than sidearms.
Geographically, the JSA was a small but important part of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea; it was the location of the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners were exchanged. Also crowded into the river valley were buildings for meetings and a set of observation posts for each side to watch the other. While the JSA was supposed to be a peaceful, neutral zone for resolving disagreements, harassment attacks on isolated troops were on the rise—sometimes brutal enough to send men to the hospital—so in mid-August, officers in the UN Command decided that because a large poplar tree blocked a view between guard posts in the JSA, it needed a trim.
Following notifications to the North Koreans, on the morning of August 18, a work team of Americans and South Koreans arrived at the tree and prepared to begin work. Minutes later, dozens of North Koreans arrived to confront the team. Then, on command from a sergeant, they attacked with axes. The fight was over in minutes; although no shots were fired, two American officers lay dead.
The UN Command evacuated the casualties; the question was how to respond. It was the latest in a long line of outrages: The North Koreans had shot down a U.S. intelligence-gathering airplane (1969), captured the USS Pueblo from international waters (1968) and held the crew hostage, and tried to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee (also 1968).
In command of U.S. Forces–Korea was General Richard Stilwell, who notified Washington of the attack. Intense discussions opened between Stilwell’s headquarters, the Kissinger-led crisis team called the Washington Special Actions Group, and President Park. Nobody knew the North Korean motive for the violence, but agreed that orders must have come from the supreme commander, Kim Il-Sung. North Korea was already sending out communiques blaming the Americans for the melee, but the propaganda was being disputed by American photographs that documented the entire fight.
Whatever the enemy reasoning, South Korea and U.S. leaders wanted to push back quickly. The North had taken no hostages during the attack, so the United States had more freedom of action than it had during the Pueblo crisis. The planning moved in a matter of hours rather than days. Air-attack advocates suggested that the United States blow up the tree, perhaps with a precision-guided bomb called the GBU-15 (a new weapon, not officially in use), which could convert the tree into toothpicks while other U.S. airplanes attacked targets inside North Korea. This group figured that a second try at trimming the tree would send men into a deathtrap, where zeroed-in North Korean artillery and machine guns would kill them all in seconds. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements was one of these who feared a trap. Some pressed for naval action to sink North Korean ships, or flatten harbor facilities.
The ground approach, pressed by Stilwell and his staff, reasoned that the tree stood as a symbol of the North’s intransigence, and had to be taken out by infantry action as a sign of resolve. An early-morning action backed by air support would, Stilwell believed, finish the job before the North Koreans could act.
President Park suggested to Stilwell that the North Koreans be given plenty of notice before a second tree-trimming squad went in. Then, when the North Korean troops stormed into the JSA to attack a second time, they would be met by 50 “expert Tae-Kwan-Do artists” from the nation’s special forces, who would deliver a “sound thrashing” to the enemy. Once captured on film like a Hong Kong action movie, Park felt, the slugfest would put an end to more such outrages.
Washington endorsed the Stilwell plan: With minimal notice to the North, lightly armed troops would enter the JSA at the soonest opportunity and begin sawing branches off the tree. This would serve the “You can’t scare us” goal, but not if the men were wiped out in a North Korean counterattack first. Therefore, just south of the demilitarized zone, a surplus of airborne troops, artillery, missile batteries, and airpower (attack and troop helicopters, F-111F bombers, F-4s and F-5s, and A-6s from the Midway) would be standing by. Careful timing was critical: At exactly the same time the North Koreans learned of the tree job, their radar should be reporting waves of American warplanes. In case opposition on the ground would block the tree-trimming crew, F-4Es flown all the way from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to Osan Air Base, Korea, would be available to drop GBU-15s.