North Korean threat underscores need for land mine exemption
SEOUL, South Korea — The Obama administration’s decision to remove all of its land mine stockpiles, except those in South Korea, underscores the constant security threat posed by North Korea and serves as a reminder that little has changed in the decades-old military standoff here.
“No other country besides South Korea faces such a huge military confrontation like the one on the Korean peninsula. There’s no comparison,” a spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
Citing security concerns, neither South Korean defense officials nor U.S. Forces Korea would disclose how many land mines are buried in the 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, though officials have previously estimated it’s more than 1 million.
Meant to deter a land attack, the mines are part of the massive arrays of military forces and equipment that make the DMZ the mostly heavily guarded — and dangerous — border in the world.
The buffer zone — and particularly the Joint Security Area — is a surreal place, part tense border, part tourist attraction. Busloads of visitors tour infiltration tunnels dug by the North and watch as troops from both countries glare at each other from across the Military Demarcation Line, separated by just yards in land but miles in dueling ideologies.
Both Koreas maintain villages in the DMZ. On the southern side is Daesungdong, home to some 200 people and a small school where students practice evacuating in case hostilities flare up. On northern side is the ghost village of Kijong-dong, which has no residents and is best known for the massive North Korean flag that flies over its empty buildings.
And while a ground invasion might seem unlikely, it is estimated that millions of North Korean soldiers would flood across the border if war broke out again. Vestiges of the past remain along the northern edge of the South’s territory, like the overpasses rigged to explode and stymie the advancement of North Korean troops. South Korean troops posted in lookout points along barb-wired riverbanks scan for infiltrators.
Along with hundreds of thousands of South Korean military personnel, more than 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed on the peninsula as a deterrent to the North, whose nuclear capabilities remain a key security concern in the region. The North periodically threatens to use them against South Korea and even the U.S. mainland.
Earlier this week, the State Department announced the U.S. is exempting the Korean peninsula from a pledge it made earlier this year to quit producing land mines and get rid of its current stockpiles.
Another MND spokesman said South Korea respects and welcomes the U.S. decision and views it as a sign that the U.S. understands its “unique” security situation.
“We have confidence in the strength of combined U.S.-ROK capabilities to defend against North Korean military action and maintain appropriate capabilities to meet U.S. defense requirements to defend the ROK,” the spokesman said.
South Korea has spent millions of dollars to remove land mines south of the DMZ in recent years, primarily from rural areas. A legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, they may be unearthed due to farming or uncovered by heavy rains and washed far from where they were buried.
“Land mines still hurt people, and there are still so many,” a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said previously.
While the war ended in armistice, the two Koreas, along with the U.S., remain technically at war.
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this story.