Koreas begin demining DMZ to build trust
Accompanying them to the buffer zone separating the two Koreas was a body of security guards, medical specialists and other personnel specializing in the disposal of unidentified explosives and excavation of war remains.
They are part of a 120-member team tasked with removing land mines in Arrowhead Ridge, or Hill 281, in Cheorwon County, Gangwon, some 90 kilometers (56 miles) northeast of Seoul. South and North Korea have designated the site for a joint project to retrieve war remains from April to October next year, making the removal of land mines a necessary component of the excavation project.
There were three key battles on the notorious ridge from 1952-53. The remains of more than 200 South Korean soldiers and dozens of United Nations Command (UNC) forces, such as U.S. and French troops, are thought to be there.
“We have made preparations [for the land mine removal] for a long period and are well prepared now,” the commander in charge of the frontline areas told reporters on condition of anonymity on Tuesday. The demining work, which started on Monday, is set to continue until Nov. 30.
“We will not rush and will carry out our mission with the first and foremost priority placed on the safety of our troops,” he added.
The excavation project is part of a comprehensive military agreement that the two Koreas’ defense ministers signed last month after the third summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang.
The agreement fleshed out part of the first Moon-Kim summit declaration in April that pledged to transform the DMZ into a “peace zone” and called for joint efforts to halt “all hostile acts” against each other and practically eliminate the danger of war.
A major task for these border troops is to expand the width of two existing safety paths inside the Arrowhead Ridge to ensure that next year’s excavation project can safely proceed.
The two paths are 500 and 800 meters (1,640 and 2,624 feet) long, respectively, with their widths currently at around 2 to 3 meters. The troops plan to make the shorter path 10 meters wide and the longer one 4 meters wide.
The significance of removing the land mines has not gone unnoticed.
“The DMZ is a place where there are still risks of clashes, and it is a symbol of the two Koreas’ division,” Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University, said. “The removal of land mines would be a natural procedure should the inter-Korean exchanges proceed in earnest with the prospect of possible reunification.”
The land mine removal scheme is only part of broader efforts to reduce military tensions, prevent accidental clashes and build trust between the two Koreas.
At last month’s summit, Seoul and Pyongyang reached a series of agreements, including disarming the Joint Security Area in the DMZ, removing guard posts and setting up maritime, air and ground buffer zones to clear risks of clashes “in all spaces.”
At the mine removal site, the troops mobilized an array of high-tech tools, such as magnetic locators, mine detectors, compressors and grass eliminators, an improvement to past land mine removal operations that directly exposed troops to safety risks.
Once the troops find land mines or explosive devices, they put a marker on the spot so that staff from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team can handle them. The EOD team is to dispose of land mines in rear areas outside of the DMZ.
Due to heavy gear, rough terrain and dust, the troops are only allowed to conduct their work for around 15 minutes at a time and then they must take a break. Under an agreement with the North, they can conduct work on removing land mines for two hours in the morning and another two in the afternoon.
Along with the mine removal, the troops are involved in a project to create a 1.7-kilometer-long road next year inside the DMZ to give easier access to both South and North Korean personnel dedicated to recovering war remains.
All these activities in the DMZ will be carried out with cooperation from the United Nations Command, a key enforcer of the armistice agreement that halted the Korean War.
Some personnel from the UNC Military Armistice Commission (Uncmac) were present on Thursday to observe the entry into the DMZ of personnel and equipment for the removal of the land mines.
“Consistent with the spirit of the UN Armistice Agreement, as well as the recent comprehensive agreement between North and South Korea, the UNC authorized the current demining efforts ongoing at the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom,” UNC spokesperson Col. Chad G. Carroll said.
“U.S. Forces Korea will perform a support role to include having air medical evacuation assets available to respond within minutes of any potential medical emergencies,” he added.