North and South Korea’s Joint Landmine Clearing Project

On October 1st North and South Korean troops started demining their shared, heavily fortified border. Reuters reported that Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in agreed to coordinate this joint demining project in the Joint Security Area (JSA) during a summit in September. This diplomatic milestone follows weeks of deadlocked negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Al Jazeera reported that the joint 20-day exercise was announced by the South Korean defence ministry, but not confirmed by North Korea. According to the Associated Press, South Korean army engineers were deployed to Panmunjom, a village on the border, and another frontline region called “Arrow Head Hill.” Reuters also reported that the United States-led United Nations Command is also playing a large role in the project.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines suggested that banning the usage and stockpiling of landmines and clearing contaminated areas are important steps to establish peace on the Korean peninsula. As recently as 2015, two South Korean soldiers were injured by landmines planted in the demilitarized zone. This incident heightened the tension between the two countries. Despite diplomatic and political challenges, there are several promising components to this joint project that could improve the relationship between North and South Korea. Reuters reported that the demining agreement also included the removal of weapons and guard posts from the JSA, leaving the remaining troops in the area unarmed. They also reported that propaganda loudspeakers and some guard posts had already been dismantled. The Associated Press reported that North and South Korea are also planning on conducting joint searches in these areas for soldiers killed in the early 1950’s during the Korean War.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, the Korean War had relatively few landmines at the beginning of the war, but that this changed drastically when the U.S. entered the war as a member of the United Nations coalition mandated to defend South Korea in 1950. The report states that North Korea was actually capturing U.S. landmines and sowing them to slow down enemy advances, as well as sending in waves of troops to manually activate and detonate the landmines, thus clearing contaminated land.  It seems that the peninsula’s environment has also contributed to the long-standing landmine issue. Human Rights Watch reported that army engineers have struggled on the best way to clear anti-personnel landmines in this region, as Korea’s climate and environment is not ideal for removal.  Freezing temperatures and snow can cause erratic behaviour from landmines, but landmines are also difficult to detect in the summer mud and slush.

This is just one piece of a global problem. According to UNESCO, over one million people worldwide have been killed or injured for life by exploding landmines since 1975. They report that 80% were civilians. These statistics do not take into account the number of deaths caused by landmines during the height of the Korean War. However, it seems that this project will have tremendous value by promoting peace and stability in the region and setting an example for the international community.