US troops tread carefully amid Korea tensions

By Eric Talmadge

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 2 2012 4:00 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Feb. 15, 2012, U.S. soldiers practice martial arts at Camp Bonifas near the Observation Post Ouellette in the DMZ. The United States regularly flies U-2 spy planes out of a base near the border that North Korea views as provocative. U.S. and South Korean soldiers frequently conduct patrols along the DMZ, often at night, that bring them into potentially dangerous proximity to their North Korean counterparts.

Eric Talmadge, Associated Press

OBSERVATION POST OUELLETTE, South Korea — Lt. Col. Edward Taylor stands behind a wall of sandbags overlooking the North Korean landscape and a bank of trees along the most fortified border in the world. The trees obstruct the view, he explains. They need to come down.

But this is the DMZ.

The last time anyone tried cutting trees here was 36 years ago, and it set off a melee with the North Koreans. Two U.S. soldiers were hacked to death with their own axes, touching off Operation Paul Bunyan, a full-scale mobilization of fighter jets, B-52 bombers and an aircraft carrier strike group that brought the two sides dangerously close to conflict.

The axes and clubs are still on display in a North Korean museum near the border as evidence of how the U.S. — Pyongyang claims — used the tree-cutting as a pretext to incite mayhem.

But to this day, the U.S. Army believes the 1976 Ax Murder Incident — North Korea calls it the Panmunjom Incident — was a premeditated attempt to boost the hard-line reputation of Kim Jong Il, who was then being groomed to eventually succeed his father as North Korea's leader.

With Kim's own son, Kim Jong Un, now cutting his teeth, Taylor knows his pruning plans could be all that is needed to set off America's next big war. He commands the U.S. border battalion tasked with monitoring the Demilitarized Zone and providing security.

Though often overshadowed by more pressing conflicts elsewhere — Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now the stare-down with Iran — the potential for bloody hostilities on the Korean Peninsula is as real as ever. An agreement announced this week trading U.S. food aid for North Korean nuclear concessions opens a path to broader talks, but challenging obstacles remain.

If war does break out again, the 28,000 U.S. troops in Korea defending a 60-year-old truce arrangement will be right in the thick of it.

"We are in daily contact, sometimes within arm's reach," Taylor told The Associated Press back in his base camp, named after Capt. Arthur Bonifas, one of the two Americans killed in the 1976 clash. "If something happens, it could happen in minutes."

Maybe, he says, the trees can wait.

It's easy to get complacent about Korea. The deadly game of cat-and-mouse on the peninsula hasn't changed much since the 1976 incident, or for that matter since the 1953 armistice to the Korea conflict.

Crises come and go with numbing frequency.

North Korea pushed the fragile truce to its limits two years ago, when Washington and Seoul say it torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship and later launched a limited but fatal artillery strike on a disputed border island. Pyongyang denies sinking the ship and says the artillery firing was provoked by the South Korean military, which was conducting a live-fire drill nearby.

Washington and Seoul play games of their own.

The United States regularly flies U-2 spy planes out of a base near the border that North Korea views as provocative. U.S. and South Korean soldiers frequently conduct patrols along the DMZ, often at night, that bring them into potentially dangerous proximity to their North Korean counterparts.

The three countries' militaries are at their most active right around this time of year.

Each year North Korea's 1.2 million troops, most of them based south of Pyongyang, mobilize for their December-to-April training, which is followed by a lull in the spring and summer as they return to the fields to help plant and harvest. After a brief respite following Kim Jong Il's death in mid-December, the winter training cycle is just reaching its peak.

This is also when the U.S. and South Korea hold their biggest war games. Some 200,000 South Korean and 13,000 U.S. troops are taking part in the annual Foal Eagle maneuvers that began this week and run through April.

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