A warning sign for mines on a barbed-wire fence along the DMZ in Yeongcheon County, Gyeonggi Province
The DMZ may be an ecological treasure trove, but it is also a minefield, with over 1 million landmines buried in its soil. Signs warning of mines are a frequent sight in the forests around the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) in northern Gyeonggi and Gangwon Provinces.
The presence of so many buried landmines is an issue in itself, but the bigger issue is the fact that no one knows which mines are buried where or in what kind of numbers. During the Korean War, the armed forces of South Korea, the US, North Korea, and China all placed mines throughout the front lines. Their activities did not change when the war was over: during the Cold War in the 1960s, the US placed a heavy concentration of mines near the Civilian Control Line (CCL), most of which remain unconfirmed after the US failed to provide related information to South Korea when it withdrew from the CCL in the early 1970s. The environmental group Eco Horizon Institute puts the number of unconfirmed US landmines left behind at around 600,000. Based on the combined estimates of the South Korean government, civic groups, and experts, around 1 to 1.3 million mines could remain buried on the South Korean side, including those placed by the US military.
Since the 1990s, the South Korean military has spent around 400 million won (US$337,666) per year clearing mines from the DMZ and its rear area. Around 500 are removed each year. The environmental group Green Korea has estimated that at this pace, clearing all South Korean mines through this approach would cost a budget of 1.03 trillion won (US$869.49 million) and take 469 years.
In an address before the UN on Sept. 24, President Moon Jae-in called for international cooperation on DMZ mine removal, stating that “cooperation with the international community, including the United Nations Mine Action Service, will not only guarantee the transparency and stability of demining operations, but also instantly turn the DMZ into an area of international cooperation.”
“[The DMZ] can become an international peace zone,” he suggested.
Experts agree that international cooperation is essential. Cho Jae-guk, representative of the landmine victim assistance group Peace Sharing Association, said, “If we open up the DMZ’s mine zones to the international community and elicit the cooperation of the UN and other international institutions to resolve the mine issue, then demining of the Korean Peninsula is not an insurmountable task.”
Others have suggested leaving the DMZ mines to finish out their design life spans rather than clearing them.
“Mines are said to have a life span of upwards of 100 years,” said Yu Jae-sim of the Seoul National University Environmental Planning Institute.
“If we wait about 30 years until the mines are no longer able to function on their own, the DMZ will exist as a large forest acting as the lungs of the Korean Peninsula. Then it’s up to the next generations in South and North Korea to decide together whether to preserve that forest or develop it,” Yu suggested.
By Park Kyung-man, North Gyeonggi Correspondent
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