The United States could try to minimize the risk of North Korean retaliation by responding to another EC-121-like incident with a surprise strike on a single military target, officials reckoned. But the only way to eliminate that risk would be a massive campaign to destroy North Korea’s air power. Since there wouldn’t necessarily be a difference between the costs of a major or minor military operation, America might as well go big or do nothing at all. Nixon did the latter for the remainder of his presidency—despite telling Kissinger, after the EC-121 crisis petered out, that the North Koreans “got away with it this time, but they’ll never get away with it again.”
Resolution: The United States engaged in a show of military force but didn’t use actual force or extract any compensation from North Korea.
Who backed down first: The United States.
The Tree-Cutting Incident
North Korean provocation: North Korean troops beat two American soldiers to death with axes and clubs in a shared truce area along the Demilitarized Zone, resulting in the first fatalities there since the end of the Korean War. The scuffle began when an American and South Korean crew attempted, over North Korean objections, to trim a poplar tree as a means of improving visibility at the border.
U.S. response: President Gerald Ford upgraded U.S. forces in Korea to the readiness level of DEFCON 3, moving nuclear and conventional weaponry to concrete bunkers and an aircraft carrier to Korean waters. North Korea, for its part, put the military on high alert, conducted civilian air-raid drills, and evacuated top North Korean officials to fortified tunnels. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who was a Pacific Command intelligence official at the time, has said that war felt more imminent during the tree-trimming crisis than it does today.
Kissinger, now secretary of state, recommended striking the barracks of the North Korean soldiers involved in the tree attack. But Ford was wary of thrusting the United States back into combat after it had just withdrawn from Vietnam. Instead, he selected a modest but still risky option called Operation Paul Bunyan; the chief of staff of U.S. Forces Korea estimated that it “stood a 50-50 chance of starting a war.” Three days after the axe murders, a convoy of 300 American and South Korean soldiers (including, incidentally, current South Korean President Moon Jae In) returned unannounced to the DMZ to cut down the poplar tree while helicopter gunships, B-52 bombers, and fighter jets hovered overhead and nearby.
Within minutes, North Korean troops stood down and the poplar was reduced to a stump. Within hours, a spooked Kim Il Sung expressed regret for the incident; he soon agreed to remove guard posts from the southern side of the shared truce area. The United States hadn’t made so dramatic a demonstration of military power to the North since the Korean War. Nor has it since.