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Hundreds Of Thousands Of Landmines Remain From Korean War But Serve No Purpose


The demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is the world's most heavily fortified border. Thousands of troops face each other across the DMZ, and the roughly 150-mile strip is laced with landmines. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that while some have been removed, hundreds of thousands remain.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Farmer Im Deok-seong remembers a sunny spring day in 1978.

IM DEOK-SEONG: (Through interpreter) It was May, so the hill was covered with grass.

KUHN: He was chasing his friends down a hill overlooking the Imjin River just south of the DMZ.

IM: (Through interpreter) Suddenly, I found myself flying through the air. I didn't hear any sound. But when I turned around, I smelled gunpowder. That's when I realized something had happened.

KUHN: Lim had run through an unmarked minefield, and a mine had blown off the front of his right foot. Crippled by his injury and heavy medical bills, he tried to commit suicide. He says he's never received any compensation for his injury.

IM: (Through interpreter) Until a few years ago, this was not something you could complain or appeal about. People just thought it was their own fault for living here.

KUHN: Activists estimate around a thousand people have been killed or maimed by landmines in recent decades. South Korea only passed a law mandating compensation for victims in 2014. Today, South Korean, or ROK, soldiers are clearing some landmines in order to dig for the remains of soldiers killed in the battle for Arrowhead Ridge during the Korean War.

LEE KYUNG-CHAN: The remains of more than 200 ROK soldiers and dozens of U.N. forces, such as U.S. and French troops, are thought to be buried here.

KUHN: Private Lee Kyung-chan is with the ROK 5th Infantry Division.

LEE: The engineer soldiers of our 5th Infantry Division have contributed as crucial members to this demining operation.

KUHN: Diplomacy between the two Koreas last year paved the way for the demining. But since then, only a few hundred of the roughly 1 million landmines scattered around South Korea have been removed. The U.S. and South Korean governments have not signed the Ottawa Treaty banning the use of landmines, citing the danger of a North Korean attack. But they should, argues Dr. Cho Jai-kook, head of the Korea Campaign to Ban Landmines. He estimates that 80% of them were planted outside the DMZ after the war to guard U.S. military installations, which have long since been removed.

CHO JAI-KOOK: (Through interpreter) When we call for removing landmines, we're not talking about the 20% that we need to protect the country against North Korea. We're talking about the 80% that have no use.

KUHN: Cho argues that the South Korean military doesn't have the capability to remove most of the mines, and the U.S. doesn't have the responsibility under the terms of a military agreement between Seoul and Washington.

CHO: (Through interpreter) First, the U.S. has no obligation to inform. If the U.S. plants landmines, it doesn't need to give our military any information about them. Also, the U.S. has no obligation to clear the minefields.

KUHN: Anti-landmine and anti-war activists have been encouraged by the beginning of a peace process on the Korean Peninsula. That process has since stalled. And Liz Bernstein, executive director of the Ottawa-based Nobel Women's Initiative, says getting rid of the mines must be part of a lengthy process of demilitarization.

LIZ BERNSTEIN: We're still talking and hopeful, but the fact is they've continued to maim civilians decades later. And again, they are passing the buck between themselves and the South Korean government.

KUHN: Bernstein's group has called on the U.S. and both Koreas to join the Ottawa Treaty and demine the Korean Peninsula together.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF D NUMBERS' "XYLEM UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.