This article was for a class final I wrote, during my MA program at the American Graduate School in Paris, in 2012. Note, I realize the bibliography is lacking, the only edition I had on my computer still was one from when I had quoted and seen the papers in online archives but had not yet created citations or a bibliography entry for them.
The Axe-Murder Incident: Analysis of Media and Government Responses
This paper is going to analyze the different reports by the media and responses of the governments of North Korea and the US government centered on an incident on the 18th of August 1975, known colloquially as “The Axe-Murder Incident” or by the US and North Korean governments as the “Panmunjom Incident”. I will focus on the differences in media reports between the two nations and the behind-closed-doors words of government officials at the time in the Washington Special Actions Group Meeting on the 25th of August, 1976. I will analyze how two antagonistic nations publicly respond to crisis events and how their medias wage war via their appeal to the international community to shift blame and save face.
To understand this event it is important to detail the historical context in which this occurred. First there was heavy anti-war sentiment leftover from the Vietnam War, and the Cold War was going strong. Unfortunately containment was still the US policy towards communist countries. North Korea, China, Vietnam and the USSR were all in an alliance of communist ideology. And finally war with the US against these Soviet forces was still looming as a very real possibility in the mind of the public and the governments of the world. There was a strong belief held by US officials that a violation of the armistice, through aggressive reaction to the events, would be responded to with force by the North Koreans reigniting the conflict that had been simmering for 23 years.
Description: The Event
The “Axe-Murder Incident” took place within the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, called Panmunjom, on the 18th of August, 1976 from about 10:30am-11:00 am. While it had been 23 years since the ceasing of armed hostilities within the JSA the war was always a minute from reigniting. North Korean soldiers made it a point to abuse, try to capture or antagonize American soldiers and visitors to the JSA in a bid to drag them over the Sa Chon bridge (See Appendix I), morbidly nicknamed the “Bridge of No Return” (BNR). This security risk was heightened due to the presence of a 100-foot poplar tree, which blocked the line of sight between United Nations Command (UNC) Checkpoint #3, the two outposts of Korean People’s Army (KPA) and the Sa Chon Bridge. 10:30am: (Picture 1) About 17-19 UNC and South Korean soldiers set out to prune the (now) infamous poplar tree, though it had been originally planned for an earlier date but was rescheduled to a later date. It is now believed that this was premeditated by North Korea as part of a plan to incite violence with the Americans during a meeting of Non-Allied countries in order to gain sympathy and shift international blame onto American imperialism. After the tree-trimming group had been working for several minutes, Lt. Pak Chul (AKA “Lt. Bulldog”) along with 15 KPA soldiers inquired the purpose of the work (Picture 2). This is the moment of calm within the storm and the beginning of an international incident which almost came to military action between North Korean forces and the coalition of South Korean and US forces. However important this five minute interaction is, there are different explanations of the details within western reports. A second hand account, from Bill Ferguson (a soldier who was active duty and working in the JSA during this time span) said that “Lt. Bulldog agreed it was a good idea” and sent a runner over the BNR. A second account from the 2nd Infantry Division (the unit Ferguson belonged to) gives the account that after inquiring and being ignored for several minutes Lt. Bulldog demanded work stop as “Kim Il-Sung had planted and personally nurtured the tree”.
It is here [11:00am-11:10am] that all non-North Korean reports agree, including the official US denunciation of the action: after the arrival of about 20 soldiers Lt. Bulldog removed his wristwatch and carefully wrapped it in a handkerchief. As he placed the watch into his pocket he shouted to the nearby KPA soldiers to “Kill the bastards” (See Appendix II & Picture 2). At this point the KPA soldiers took up wooden handles and a brutal melee ensued for not quite three minutes. As the tree-pruning crew fled for their lives (Picture 3) they dropped their axes which the KPA soldiers also used against the mostly defenseless workers. In the chaos Capt. Bonifas (the Commanding Officer) was mortally wounded (Picture 4) and First Lt. Mark Barrett (the second in command) jumped into a nearby ditch by Check Point #3 but was left behind, presumably incapacitated or unconscious. After the tree-pruning crew returned (sans Lt. Barrett) several KPA soldiers were seen going into the ditch one by one holding an ax, returning after a couple minutes to hand it off to another soldier. After about an hour [12:00pm-12:20pm] UNC soldiers headed down in a jeep to investigate and found Lt. Barrett still alive and medevac him, unfortunately he died en route to medical assistance. Unbeknownst to the KPA and the tree-trimming crew, soldiers at Operating Post (OP) #5 were recording and taking pictures of the event, while waiting for word from Capt. Bonifas (who was already dead by the time they requested permission to assist in the brutal attack) but they captured the violence on film which brought the world the truth about the attempted massacre.
Within minutes of the incident the North Koreans broadcast over the radio a warning attempting to make the UNC forces look like the aggressors:
“A North Korean radiobroadcast shortly after the incident occurred described it as a US provocation that forced North Korean security personnel to take defensive measures. The broadcast warned that future incidents of US aggression would be met in this fashion,” (WSAG meeting Aug 18)
Government and Media Reactions: North Korea
I would like to note before beginning this section that the Korean reports had to go through a translator and get passed to American media before they could be printed. This potentially may have made a minor change in what the North Korean media and/or government may have actually said. It is a fair assumption that the USA and Japan did not doctor the reports, as there are no counter-reports from North Koreans or the USSR, since such a falsehood would have surely been grabbed upon to undermine the international prestige of the USA. A second problem for analysis that re-enforces the validity of such reports is that the Korean government and media have the same propaganda filled messages. Within moments of the original event the Korean Central News Agency had broadcast a message blaming the UNC forces for inciting the event and that KPA forces had defended themselves successfully, killing several aggressors.
“The U.S. imperialist aggressor running wild to unleash another war in Korea committed a grave provocative act against our side in the joint security area of Panmunjom. The U.S. imperialists’ maneuvers to start a new war in Korea have entered an extremely reckless stage, a stage of directly kindling the blasting fuse of war.” (The Morning Star: Harlingen, Texas)
In an unofficial message from Kim Il-Sung delivered by a North Korean officer (presumably in response to the US military deployments directly following the incident while the administration decided its course of action) was the closest the North Korean government had come to admitting or apologizing a wrong doing.
“It was a good thing that no big incident occurred at Panmunjom for a long period However, it is regretful that an incident occurred in the joint security area, Panmunjom, this time. An effort must be made so that such incidents may not recur in the future. For this purpose both sides should 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 consistent stand” (THE DANVILLE REGISTER & THE GASTONIA GAZETTE)
It is clear that the government of North Korea was taking extreme precautions to have merely the appearance of legitimacy in the case of this incident regardless of the actual happenings. For those who believe it is the media’s duty to relay facts and reveal corruption or falsities this would be a major violation of journalistic integrity, but given that it is a state controlled media source, common sense dictates that the position of the media is always going to match that of the government; as it has been in dystopian literature such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and V For Vendetta. The freedom of the press here is non-existent and clearly is just a facade in order to further propaganda and use their own propaganda as a tool of public coercion against enemies of the state.
Government and Media Reactions: USA
The first reports in the media about the incident come out of a Washington Special Action Group (WSAG) meeting with Henry Kissinger, wherein they discussed the possibility of the Axe-Murder Incident as a pre-planned event by the North Koreans in order to foster anti-occupation of South Korea by the USA. This announcement was given by General Stilwell, Commanding Officer (CO) of US forces in the JSA:
“This was not the eruption of an unplanned argument…It was the deliberate murder of United Nations Command personnel, who. While engaged in routine maintenance functions of a type your personnel often perform, were attacked mercilessly by a numerically superior force wielding axes and clubs”
(The Morning Star/ see Appendix III for evidence)
By looking at the build-up of anti-UNC propaganda by North Korea in an attempt to paint the US as aggressors during any incident that had happened it is clear that while they may not have intended for UNC soldiers to die; the event was in all likelihood pre-planned to coincide with the meeting of Non-aligned states taking place at the time. The US though played this game also when responding with setting up DefCon3 for troops in Korea, and sending a squadron of US fighter jets to reinforce local troops the US Defense Department publicly announces that its moves were only intended to deter North Korean military action and were “a precautionary measure “. (The Morning Star)
It is clear though that this was a direct attempt to compel the North Koreans and deter them while using the subsequent Operation Paul Bunyan to “swagger” and overawe the North Koreans with the potential military consequences of their actions. Also playing to liberal humanitarian ideals within the Western World, an official refusal of the North Korean apology said “We consider this a backhanded acknowledgment that the North Koreans were wrong in the brutal act that they committed”. (Danville Register)
The treatment of the issue by US media was taken as an extreme crisis, which is why this author believes that the official government positions were used in the articles. When it came out that UNC personnel had recorded the event, after the photos were developed the media was able to verify the event as more of a massacre of the UNC soldiers by the KPA soldiers, giving further public validity to the official US government position. In most papers the story was the same, some used slightly different levels of description for the incident, but the general story was overall the same.
Analysis of Media and Government Responses
The manner in which the US government portrayed and framed its information to the media played a very large part in the choices of North Korean action and brought international sympathy to the US soldiers killed in the “Peace Village” Panmunjom. Where the US was concerned with the truth and validity the North Korean government and media was concerned with the appearance of validity during this crisis. (CITE analysis) It is obvious that the North Korean government/media could not use the real story to their advantage on the world stage, so it resorted to a completely fallacious story, written up portray the American occupation of South Korea was a façade for eventually invading North Korea. However this choice by North Korea failed to bring sympathy, both international and at the meeting of non-aligned states, as the story was obviously false and treating it as true would bring international shame on parties who acted as though it was real.
In America this story made the front page news nationwide, the implications it had for potential war over the two murders was very likely if the US government had not responded in such a well thought out manner. This constant state of crisis and the dark figure of war it represented lasted from August 18th 1976 until after the successful completion of Operation Paul Bunyan on August 21st 1976. For these few days the media played a crucial role in the policy choices by the US and North Korean governments, in some ways the media was a pressure release valve acting to relieve the US government from the pressure to act in an over-aggressive manner. At other times the media sought to stoke up international public outcry against the murders, which allowed the US government to react with caution and consideration. It was thanks to the media and the stories of atrocities such as the Panmunjom Incident that Congress approved troops at the DMZ in Korea to be given full combat pay instead of peace-time pay.
This crisis is dominated by the role of the media’s portrayal and framing of the story, it in a sense was a media war between truth and the appearance of truth. Public and international opinion was the driving force in this battle, without proper public appeal the reaction of the US government could have garnered international condemnation and reprisal. Media portrayals of the merciless slaughter by of two US troops over the attempted pruning of a single poplar tree was met with international sympathy and condemnation of the KPA’s mindless violence. In a time when the world was getting sick of war the media had two choices: sensationalize the story in such a way as to draw criticism against US troops in and around the DMZ, or draw up feelings of empathy for two murdered soldiers. In North Korean media US soldiers are written off as violent, mindless dogs- aggressive by nature, provoking problems anytime the opportunity presented itself. Looking at Appendix III the ploy by the North Koreans can be seen, cause an incident and write it off as US “imperial aggressors and war-hawks” bullying a small country and occupying half of it. Thanks to UNC policy any incident was to be recorded if possible, (due to past incidents) this allowed the US government to back up its position and the US media to successfully defeat the North Korean media on the international stage.
During the previous months the North Korean media had been stoking the embers of US resentment and was even making some progress at it until this event. It is important to remember that had the international community taken up the propaganda of the North Korean media and Operating Post #5 not captured the violence on film it is very likely that the US would have been under extreme pressure to pull-out of Korea entirely, leaving the South Koreans in an untenable position. The media in this crisis had the largest role in capturing the sentiment of the world, promoting free press, projecting the truth of the issue; all of which lead to essentially a US victory over North Korean pressure.
This paper set out to disambiguate the stories put forth by the media and the official positions of the US government and the North Korean government. It has shown that in both cases the media echoed the position of their government but the quality and veracity were very different. Media was the dominant influence over this crisis, not just in the sense of reporting but in a war of free press over government controlled media. If the North Korean media had produced a higher quality story, or doctored some photos to be published before the US pictures came to light it could have become an even more intense crisis. This author would like to suggest that based on this case study that in media facts matter; the presentation is important in the realm of media but in a crisis it is truth and film that have true power to them. As we have seen during crises of humanitarian disasters from weather, it is the images, audio and video that really can capture a crisis better than any set of words. The intense rivalry between both the media and governments created a nearly perfect storm for terrible consequences, as both had always pointed blame to the other side in previous media wars and this was a losing battle for the American media. The images below have all the speed and intensity of a “Nascar” race, death floating ever-present over the heads of the viewer. In this case though the double is no machine standing in for the people who were killed but they were soldiers of the viewers’ army protecting South Korea from imminent invasion.
Within the images the speed is obvious right away: men running, grasping their aggressors, axes and axe handles swung so fast the picture is blurred- shows and brings the viewer directly into the moment of the fight. It is not so different from the adrenaline filled moments everyone has experienced in their own lives, which seems to last forever but is only a few mere minutes from start to finish. Just like all horrific stories that bring the viewer into the moment, this combination of speed, violence, death and association (with the UNC forces) allowed the US media to have the upper hand in this battle of free and controlled press.
In the end both governments were trying to save face: the Americans for losing two men over a tree-pruning, and the North Koreans from essentially endorsing (if not planning) the brutal murders of two UNC officers in a bid to gain public opinion. The media’s role in crisis is well established and with events such as this the manner of producing and framing issues must be undertaken with the utmost seriousness and care. There can be no doubting the power of these media pieces and their effects on the outcome of the crisis, but the battle between the free press and government controlled media has not yet ended.
Appendices & Pictures:
Gen. Richard G Stilwell. U S commander said in Korea in a protest to North Korea, The United States, disclosing more details of the attack, told the U N Security Council, meanwhile, that one North Korea officer carefully took off his wristwatch and put it in his pocket before the attack. The report also said another of the North Korean shouted “kill'” as he approached the commander of the U S group at Panmunjom on Wednesday The details of the incident were in the report which U.S Ambassador W Tapley Bennett Jr. handed to Council President Isao Abe of Japan at the Japanese Mission to the U.N. on behalf of the U.N. Command (The Morning Star)
18 August 1976
DDCI BRIEFING FOR
18 AUGUST WSAG MEETING
DECLASSIFIED A/ISS/IPS, Department of State E.O. 12958, as amended February 27, 2009
I. We are virtually certain that the violent incident in the Joint Security Area this morning was a de-liberate provocation. We believe it was primarily intended to agitate American public opinion over the issue of our troops in Korea in the context of the US election campaign.
II. Since early this spring, North Korean propaganda has charged almost daily that the US is introducing new weapons into the South, conducting provocative military exercises, and keeping South Korean armed forces on a war footing. — Pyongyang has warned that these developments have created a “grave situation” in which war may break out at any time.
— On August 5 — only a few hours after an exchange of fire between ROK and North Korean troops on the DMZ — North Korea, in an un-usually high level statement, alleged that the US and South Korea have now “completed” war preparations. The statement was the first issued at this level since 1969 that was directed specifically at US actions in the South.
III. North Korea’s efforts have most recently been focused on the Non-Aligned Conference in Colombo, now drawing to a close. — Their efforts in Colombo, in turn, were intended to affect favorably their prospects in the UN General Assembly debate. A resolution has now been introduced that once again calls for American withdrawal from Korea.
IV. While the North Koreans have made gains in the international forum, their propaganda efforts have won them little or no return in the American political forum. They may now be raising the ante in hopes of stimulating American opposition to a continued US troop presence. This morning’s incident seemed deliberately intended to produce American casualties. The Joint Security Area is one of the very few places where North Koreans have direct, continuing contact with US military personnel.— In June, there were several similar incidents in which US forces in the Joint Security Area were harassed by North Korean personnel. No casualties resulted, however. — According to the account of today’s incident • issued in Seoul, a North Korean officer at the scene was heard to tell his troops to kill the UNC (i.e., US) personnel. — A North Korean radiobroadcast shortly after the incident occurred described it as a US provocation that forced North Korean security personnel to take defensive measures. The broadcast warned that future incidents of US aggression would be met in this fashion, but otherwise signaled no major change in Pyongyang’s policy.
V. North Korea’s next moves will undoubtedly be conditioned by the American reaction. — Should the response to this probe lead them to believe that they can play effectively on American sensitivities by further controlled acts of violence, we would expect them to pursue this course.
VI. But we believe that their principal immediate objective is to improve upon their 1975 success in the General Assembly. Accordingly, we believe that they are extremely unlikely to embark upon a course that would run the risk of major US reprisals or portraying North Korea as significantly raising the threat of instability on the peninsula.