U.S. troops tread carefully amid tensions

By Eric Talmadge

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 3 2012 1:32 a.m. MST

In this Saturday Oct. 8, 2011 file photo, a North Korean farmer walks along a highway outside the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, North Korea.

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,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.

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