Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Can North Korea Back Out Now?

Dear Korean,

Are things so dire in North Korea that war is the only way out?

Paul R.

Normally, the Korean only accepts questions via email and not through Twitter, Facebook or other channels. But this question, sent via Twitter, was just so spot-on that the Korean could not resist. 

(If you have a problem with this, please refer to the AAK! Policies. It is my blog, and I will do whatever the hell I damn well please with it. Don't be surprised if you visit this blog tomorrow and suddenly run into a foot fetish porno site. You just never know.)

Let us elaborate the question just a little bit. As North Korea escalates the tension, there is a fear that Kim Jong-un is putting himself into a position from which he cannot exit without some kind of military action. The thought is: if Kim Jong-un threatens to use force, he can't not use force if he wishes to maintain any level of credibility. 

Is this true? It may well be, but no one really knows. But here is the question we can actually answer: does this have to be true? For that question, the answer is a resounding no--because North Korea previously backed off after having taken even closer step toward the brink: it actually killed American soldiers at Panmunjeom.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Yes, this actually happened. In August 18, 1976, 11 soldiers--six Americans and five South Koreans--were overseeing a gang of five South Korean workers in the Joint Security Area near Panmunjeom. The South Korean workers were trying to cut down a large tree within the JSA that obstructed the sight line between the two watch posts.The tree was near the edge of the South Korean portion of the JSA. 

The American soldiers and the North Korean soldiers have been engaged in low-level physical scuffles and yelling arguments for about a month prior to this incident. Several times, North Korean soldiers attempted to kidnap the U.S. soldiers from the post nearest to the Armistice Line. In one occasion, Capt. Arthur Bonifas, Joint Security Force Company Commander, had to cross the Armistice Line and force the North Korean soldiers to release a group of American soldiers, whom the North Korean soldiers held at gunpoint.

Map of the JSA, August 18, 1976. The tree to be cut down is in the bottom left corner.
Across the "Bridge of No Return" is North Korean territory.
On August 18, 1976, the rising tension came to a head. When the South Korean workers began cutting down the tree, a number of North Korean soldiers appeared and demanded the work to be stopped, claiming that the tree was planted by Kim Il-sung himself. Capt. Bonifas, supervising the work, ignored the North Korean soldiers and ordered the work to be continued. Then the North Korean soldiers suddenly attacked with clubs, hatchets and pickaxes, aiming for the American soldiers. Capt. Bonifas was bludgeoned to death. All but one person out of the 11 American and South Korean soldiers were severely wounded, and one American soldier--First Lieutenant Mark Barrett--died from his injuries. This is now known as the Panmunjeom Axe Murder Incident.

Three days after the killing, the U.S. implemented the Operation Paul Bunyan--the operation to cut down the tree, while being escorted by an overwhelming show of force. The U.S. military operated at DEFCON 2 during the operation. (DEFCON 1 is the state in which nuclear war is imminent; it has never been called.) More than 800 American and South Korean soldiers formed a task force to cut down the tree. Behind them were 27 helicopters, 20 F-111 fighters, 24 F-4 fighters, and three B-52 bombers. Aircraft carrier Midway was moved to just off the coast of Korean Peninsula.

When the U.S.-South Korea task force began cutting the tree, between 150 and 200 North Korean soldiers with assault rifles and machine guns took their position. It took more than 40 minutes to cut down the tree, after which the task force withdrew. As the task force was cutting the tree, the South Korean soldiers were loudly taunting the North Korean soldiers to cross the line and stop them. Later that day, the North Korean soldiers shot at an American helicopter circling over Panmunjeom, but no one was injured. 

This moment is almost certainly the closest that the two Koreas approached the Second Korean War. To be sure, one can make a solid argument in favor of other moments. The U.S.S. Pueblo Incident in 1968 was close. So was 1993, when U.S. seriously considered a surgical strike against North Korea's nuclear facility, or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea in 2010. But in none of those cases did U.S. mobilize its forces and had them face off eyeball-to-eyeball with North Korean forces, as it did with the Axe Murder Incident. 

At the moment, in 1976, it would have been fair to wonder if Kim Il-sung painted himself into a corner, such that a war was the only way out. But thankfully, the situation did not escalate from there. Incredibly, North Korea issued a half-apology, expressing regret over the incident and pledging not to engage in provocation.

So, to address the question. Will Kim Jong-un go to war? No one knows, and no one can know. Personally, I think that when North Korea shut off the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, the risk of war went from "trivial" to "small". But is Kim Jong-un in a place where he has no way out other than a war? No. It is not even close: his grandfather backed off from an even greater indignity. There is room for Kim Jong-un to back off. The million-dollar question is whether he will.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. But isn't KJU in a more dire domestic political situation than his father or his grandfather ever was?

    I'm more worried about one of the border generals going "Fuck you" to KJU and launch an attack (which, I'm told, Yeonpyung shelling very well could have been).

  2. My thoughts are: many people are plugged in now, reading and seeing all that the media has to offer on global events. As a Korean-American, I've been hearing about North-South tensions and "provocations" for decades. I used to get anxious about it as a kid. After numerous "what if" seasons, I feel more calm even when it seems this time the situation is bigger. "Big" is just an illusion, and, the media reports have a hand in how the illusion is set up. (We all now how credible TV and print media are, especially at predicting the future... Yep, just like FaceBook... And, the weather forecast for that matter but, I digress.) I am taking my young daughter to Korea in the coming month and trust that all will be just fine. If not, well, then the entire world will know since technology has brought us all closer, like in the palm of your hand (if you're on a smartphone, that is). Hakuna matata, y'all.

  3. This post makes a very good point, but it still seems to me that there's reason to wonder if KJU really has the same amount of room to maneuver that Kim Il Sung had.

    Obviously, nobody outside of NK really has a clue what's going on inside NK .... but still, it seems to me that the weird-even-for-North-Korea flavor of this round of bluster lends a lot of credence to the idea that what we're seeing is the outward manifestation of some kind of internal power struggle -- KJU trying to position himself as a leader strong enough to take on the Americans, or a hostile faction trying to box him into an impossible position, or both -- and in that case, the situation becomes considerably more worrying.

    If everything comes down to a young, inexperienced leader trying to thread the needle between "a show of force strong enough to consolidate my internal position" and "a show of force so strong that it actually starts a war," then it seems to me that it's pretty much a coin-flip how this ends up.

  4. In the past, China was an effective tool against retaliation by the South and U.S. Now, it may be a whole different ball game.

    1. That's what they said in 2006 when NK detonated a nuclear weapon, and in 2009 after the second nuclear test, and 2013 after the third nuclear test. What a joke. Keep on dreaming bro!

  5. Regarding that foot fetish porno site you are planning to open - can you post pictures of Lee Min Ho's feet? Thanks in advance.

  6. I first heard about the Panmunjeom Axe Murder Incident from the movie "JSA", which was, if my memory serves me correctly, the first Korean movie that I had ever watched.


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