Did you know that in the aftermath of World War II the Allies decided to divide Korea in half without asking permission?
First, the two young American officers charged with drawing the dividing line have to find a map and they eventually do, in the middle of a copy of the National Georgraphic.
Urban legend has it that they also had to ask someone to show them Korea on the map. While it’s probably not true, it sounds true. And because the atmosphere is frantic, it’s nighttime, they’re young, they have generals barking at them to hurry it up, one of them’s like, “Hey, look. There’s practically already a line here, at the 38th Parallel. Let’s use that, and then we can go get some dinner over at the mess hall. I hear they’ve got chicken fried steak tonight.”
I mean, forget that Korea has just suffered for thirty five years under oppressive Japanese rule. Forget that nobody asked Korea if they wanted to be divided in half, these two young officers don’t even look at Korea’s resources.
All of the arable land is in the south. The south grows food. The north, which is, like, 90% mountains, they’ve got minerals. Which are nice and everything, but you can’t eat them.
Imagine if when the Tea Party crackpots finally draw a line from Oregon to New York and create the United States of Canada up north and Jesusland down south, they tell those of us in the USC that we can’t import food from Jesusland. Or anybody else, except, like, SERBIA, and we all hope that we can learn to eat snow.
But never mind! Because there’s no oil in Korea, there’s nothing America wants except their location which is smack-dab between China and Japan, the point being to stop the spread of Pinko Commies.
The Americans tell the Russians that they can have the north, while the Americans take the south. And this lasts for about five years. Then the guy in charge in North Korea, Kim Il-sung, he decides to reunite Korea. By force. So he crosses the 38th Parallel, and the Korean War begins. It goes on for about three years and at one point the south is in control of the entire country, at one point the north is in power, but at the end of this conflict all that’s changed is that now the nicely straight line of the 38th Parallel is kind of squiggly on one side in favour of the south. And about two million civilians are dead.
So the two sides build the the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ. It’s 250 kilometres long and 4 kilometres wide. It’s the most heavily militarized border in the world (soon to be upstaged by the border between Mexico and the US – okay, no, I made that up) and in 1976 the Americans are still in South Korea, still hanging out in the DMZ, still stomping around.
And there’s this tree.
This 100 foot high tree that’s blocking their view of the military checkpoint.
Dum dum DUUUUUM! It’s a PINKO COMMIE TREE!
Now, this checkpoint is important because it’s super close to the border, a border which literally intersects a bridge. So the American Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Barratt round up some South Korean soldiers and go out to trim the tree. They’re carrying axes. No guns.
And as they’re working on the tree about fifteen North Korean soldiers wander up. They stand around watching for awhile, and then the guy in charge – Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul, suddenly says that the Americans have got to stop. Because Kim Il-sung personally planted this tree. And nourished it. And it’s growing under his supervision.
Which is sweet, you know?
I mean, in a lot of ways the tremendously isolated and constantly lied to North Korean people look upon Kim Il-sung as a kind of Santa Claus. Benevolent and kind, everywhere at once, always knowing everything that’s going on, giving gifts to the little children, protecting trees, occasionally throwing the odd person in a prison camp for writing mean things about him in their diary, but you know, FOR THEIR OWN GOOD.
I mean, you know. And I know. That Kim Il-sung could not pick this tree out of a group of two. But it is truly possible that Pak Chul believes what he’s saying. (Hell, ask any Joe America if George W. Bush is a heroic freedom fighter or an oil-hungry monster made of evil. Oh my stars, WHICH will he PICK?) The American captain literally turns his back on Pak Chul and tells his men to keep on trimming.
This does not go over well.
Pak Chul sends a runner across the bridge, and the runner comes back with twenty extra North Korean soldiers. And this is where the facts get fuzzy. According to the entirely government-controlled North Korean press, the American Imperialist Agressors sent in 14 hoodlums with axes into the joint security area to cut the trees of their own accord, and then attacked the North Koreans who had no choice but to act in their own self-defense.
(Of course, these are the same reporters who say that Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-Il, was born in North Korea on a mountain underneath a double rainbow, a new star was born in the sky the same day, and, AND, that he can control the weather. So, you know. Take the North Korean press version with a grain of salt.)
The equally suspect American version goes like this: the twenty extra North Korean soldiers show up. Pak Chul demands that the Americans stop trimming the tree. Bonifas turns his back on him again. (Possibly, with his back safely turned, he sticks his tongue out as well. WHY NOT. Because, yes. Yes, it is EXACTLY like a bunch of toddlers in a sandbox. Except some of these toddlers have axes. Folks, don’t give toddlers axes.)
In the American version (written, I feel, just after a fun get-together in which the surviving soldiers got to see their own private showing of “Enter the Dragon” with Bruce Lee) the North Korean lieutenant Pak Chul carefully puts his watch in his pocket and shrieks with a badly dubbed, “Kill them!”
Still in the American version, Pak Chul karate chops – no, I know, isn’t it sad that the North Koreans are victim to so much propaganda? – he karate chops (I am embarrassed even to type this) – he karate chops Captain Bonifas in the back of his neck and he falls down. (Cue triumphant action music!)
But everyone agrees that the next part definitely happened. Which is: that when some of the American soldiers wisely flee they drop their axes on their way out of Dodge.
And the North Korean soldiers pick them up. And… they ax-murder Bonifas. They do. YES THEY DO.
They only wound Barrett, who manages to limp away while no one is looking all horror movie style, but oh noes! His spike heel breaks and he has to dive into a fifteen foot deep gully for safety.
The soldiers who haven’t fled manage to load Bonifas’ body onto a truck and drive away, brakes squealing, but nobody notices that Barrett’s missing until a couple of hours later.
By which time he’s been visited by the ax-wielding soldiers. (Um… Barrett’s with the angels now, sweetie.)
Everybody goes back to their side of the playground.
On the north side – now, you have to understand that the Korean War never ended. All that happened in 1953 was the participants signed a cease-fire agreement. After Bonifas and Barrett are, you know, AX-MURDERED, there’s nothing on North Korean tv except government people calmly explaining to the watchers that now the inevitable moment has arrived, and twenty two years after the cease fire agreement has been signed, the original soldiers now grandfathers, America will attack.
In America they’re like, “We gotta show ’em we’re top dawg but cheeeeeraaast, who wants t’go through another war? They ain’t even got any OIL up thurrr.”
So what do they decide to do? Can you guess?
Well, first they have to assmble their forces. The Americans send twenty three trucks, a bunch of guys to build rafts underneath the bridge in case they have to blow it up, a bunch of unarmed soldiers trained in Taekwondo – look, I don’t know. I’m just TELLING YOU.
Twenty seven helicopters, a bunch of B-52 Bombers, a couple of F4 and F5 fighters, a bunch more soldiers carrying grenade launchers and M-16 rifles and probably Rambo because WHY NOT.
To cut the tree down.
To cut the Pinko Commie tree down.
Eight hundred and thirteen men.
TO CUT THE FUCKING TREE DOWN.
Because they are toddlers. In a sandbox.
About 200 North Korean soldiers come to watch. But that’s all they do. Within an hour, the tree, which never did anything to anybody, is a 20 foot tall stump. Everyone once again goes back to their side of the playground. And pretty soon America is like, “Moooooom, they didn’t apologize. If they don’t apologize, we’re gonna be SO MAD,” so Kim Il-sung sighs and says, “An effort must be made so such incidents may not recur in the future. For this purpose, both sides must make efforts. We urge your side to prevent the provocation. Our side will never provoke first, but take self-defensive measures only when provocation occurs. This is our stand.” I mean, basically Kim Il-sung sighs and says, “You know what? FUCK OFF,” but North Korea still doesn’t have any oil, so America still doesn’t want war, and they have no choice but to accept it.
And forty years later, Kim Il-sung’s grandson is in charge. He’s viewed less as a Santa Claus and more as the terrifying boogeyman lurking in the closet who will introduce you to North Korea’s position on human rights in one of the many prison camps if you happen to commit a thought crime.
Eight hundred and thirteen men, 27 helicopters, and a handful of B-52 Bombers to cut down a tree.
Ten thousand people dying every year in secret prison camps? Well. It’s not in America’s sandbox.
Photo Gonzalo Andrés