Deaths in JSA, agitprop canned, defection by barrelAug. 18, 1976
Who would have ever thought that trimming a poplar tree could lead to murder? On this date, the unbelievable occurred: the Ax Murder Incident at Panmunjeom, on the North-South Korean border. Two American officers, one South Korean officer and four workmen arrived in a United Forces truck and started cutting branches off a 25-year-old, 30-meter (98-foot) high poplar. Standing in United Nations territory in the Joint Security Area, the tree was so thick with leaves that it obstructed tourists’ view of the Bridge of No Return.
When the group had pruned about five branches, they got an unexpected visit from at least 15 North Korean guards. One of them threatened, “Stop the work, or you all will be dead.” Though the South Koreans suspended cutting for a moment, one of the American officers failed to heed, and continued to work. The North Korean officer soon sprang at the American, shouting, “Kill 'em” and urging his comrades with axes, steel spits and sticks to leap at the United Nations and South Korean officers.
More than 30 North Korean troops arrived, encircling the American officers. They swung their axes at the two American officers, who dropped to the ground, bleeding. One of the workmen managed to escape the scene to report the outbreak to UN forces. Soon after, a backup team was dispatched to gather the American officers’ dead bodies.
The atrocity made big news around the world. The late Kim Il-sung, then-leader of North Korea and father of Kim Jong-il, sent a letter of apology to the UN. The poplar tree was soon rooted out completely.
Aug. 19, 1982
A plastic oil barrel led Lee Heon-ju, a North Korean coal miner, to South Korea on this date. Born to a South Korean father, Mr. Lee said he was being discriminated against by the North Korean government and given only the most arduous type of labor, such as working in the mines.
Mr. Lee planned to defect to South Korea, and at 1 a.m. on this date, he leaped into the Yeseong River in the North while holding onto an empty plastic oil barrel. He drifted with the barrel into the Han River, eventually finding himself near Ganghwa Island on the West Sea border with South Korea.
Mr. Lee described to South Korean officials the wretchedness he had seen in the North. One of the North Korean arithmetic textbooks, he said, included the following problem: “There are 10 Americans. A hand grenade is thrown at them, killing seven. How many are left?”
Aug. 19, 1994
Until late 1994, it wasn’t such a huge deal to be five minutes late to a movie. Prior to the feature presentation, a government-made propaganda film, “Daehan Nui-useu” (News from the Republic of Korea), would usually play for several minutes.
Since 1953, such propaganda had been used to publicize the government’s policies, as well as to promote dictators’ new visions. Viewers would watch Park Chung Hee smiling as he toured a new factory, or students in uniforms getting military exercise. On this date, the government decided to put an end to “Daehan Nui-useu,” and the law went into effect on Dec. 20.
by Chun Su-jin