North Korean soldiers place land mines near Panmunjom

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North Korean soldiers place land mines near Panmunjom

North Korea has mounted land mines in areas near the truce village of Panmunjom at the inter-Korean border, a South Korean military official said Tuesday - possibly to stop defections of soldiers.

“The South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities detected last week that the North Korean soldiers were planting multiple mines north of the Bridge of No Return near Panmunjom,” the source said. “It is the first time that they witnessed the North’s land mine placement in that area since the Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953.”

The Bridge of No Return is located inside the truce village, west of the Joint Security Area. The bridge crosses the military demarcation line between the two Koreas, and it was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War. The name came from the final ultimatum given to the prisoners of war before their repatriation, because they would never be allowed to return once they cross the bridge to return to their homeland.

“Under the regulations governing the truce, planting land mines is forbidden in the areas near the Panmunjom,” said a South Korean government official. “The guards are banned from carrying heavy weapons. The United Nations Command strongly protested to the North about the move.”

The North’s response to the complaint is unknown.

The UN Command issued a statement on Tuesday and said it is aware of the North Korean military’s activity near the bridge. But it refused to speculate on the North’s possible motives.

The command also condemned the North’s movement as it poses risks to the safety of DMZ visitors on both sides of the military demarcation line.

Intelligence authorities of South Korea and the United States believe that the North appeared to have placed the land mines to prevent the defection of its soldiers.

“The North built towers north of Panmunjom and placed security cameras,” a military official said. “And the activities of border patrol were reduced. Although the North Korean soldiers at the inter-Korean border were selected after a thorough ideology screening, they are increasingly agitated by the South Korean military’s propaganda broadcasts.”

The source added, “As elite North Koreans including diplomats and overseas restaurant workers are defecting, the North is seeking ways to stop frontline soldiers from escaping.”

The South Korean military also believes the North may stage another provocation using the land mines, and it has therefore stepped up its watch.

“Since 2013, the North planted land mines in the demilitarized zone and started nighttime ambushes,” a source from the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. “Because the North staged the land mine provocation in August last year after planting more mines near the border, it may stage another provocation while diverting attention with the activities near Panmunjom.”

Last year, North Korean soldiers slipped across the heavily guarded border and planted land mines at the South’s guard post. Two southern soldiers were maimed after stepping on them.

“The North has fiercely protested the ongoing Korea-U.S. joint military drills,” Yang Wook, senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, said. “Because the North has a history of staging armed provocations around the time of our joint exercises, such as when it sank the warship Cheonan, we need to stay vigilant.”

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