South Korea Clears Mines from the DMZ (and Why I Think That’s a Shrewd Decision)

You say you want reunification? Fine, then. Dig up the mines along the DMZ and open the border. No, I’m not kidding:

The South Korean military said Monday it has removed some 1,300 land mines this year from the country’s rural areas bordering North Korea, a reminder of the tense 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce. In the operations that lasted from April to November, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) mobilized 3,300 personnel to remove mines from a total of 100,000 square meters of land south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), it said in a release. Since starting the operations in 1999, JCS has cleared 65,000 mines.

“It was a rewarding operation as we moved carefully not to disrupt the natural environment of the areas we cleared,” Maj. Jeong Heon-min, operation chief, was quoted as saying. Land mines pose a threat to civilians working in remote areas near the DMZ, especially farmers. JCS said it plans to clear 140,000 square meters of land next year. The areas covered this year included Yeoncheon-gun on the west and Goseong-gun on the east. Both abut the military demarcation line with North Korea. [Yonhap]

This will no doubt induce gasps of fear from some, but if you look deeper, you will realize what a shrewd decision this just might be. The mines were placed there at a time when a North Korean invasion was a serious threat, a time that is long gone. Sure, the North Koreans could increase their infiltration of a de-mined DMZ, but the North could do the same via commercial flights, by sea, or through any of the remaining tunnels under the DMZ.

The greater significance of an impassible DMZ is that it prevents North Korea’s southern border from becoming what its northern border has already become — a pipeline for information, goods, money, radios, DVD’s, and refugees. Think how North Korea has been fighting a losing war to maintain the isolation of its population, despite the efforts of its army and border guards, and even with the assistance of a ruthlessly friendly dictatorship to its North. With all of the constraints China’s presence imposes on North Korea’s northern border, de-mining the southern border will vastly increase the North Korean regime’s difficulties in maintaining the isolation of its people. Replacing the DMZ with a semi-open border would allow the South to set up camps to hold, feed, care for, and educate refugees, to soften the blow of inevitable regime collapse, and even become a host to a broad-based opposition movement. With the threat of an invasion now greatly diminished, it’s plausible that within five years, the DMZ could become what the Austro-Hungarian border was in 1989. It could also become a means for more South Koreans to acquire a more accurate understanding of life in the North than what previous South Korean governments had led them to believe.

Indeed, one wonders whether the North could even complain about such a move without implicitly acknowledging what a prison it is. That’s why the shrewdest thing Lee Myung Bak could do would be to remove all of the anti-personnel mines, to remove everything that impedes pedestrian traffic across the DMZ except for immigration control centers on the South Korean side. Otherwise, leave only the sensors, the ROK Army patrols, the anti-tank berms and barriers, and any anti-tank mines whose pressure plates are set to destroy heavy vehicles.

10 Comments

  1. This is encouraging.

    Did South Korea remove all the mines that North Korea placed also or did NK not place any?

    Even with the mines removed is it still possible that North Koreans could now cross the DMZ? Isn’t the DMZ, unlike the Chinese border, highly monitored?




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  2. Wonder if the ROK government has set up a “floodgates” contingency – and whether the ROKs are thinking “magnet effect” the same way Beijing is, and perhaps even using the removal as a catalyst for this magnet effect.

    Either way, I hope they’re ready. With the Hanawon system already completely overwhelmed, something tells me that they’re not. Putting large numbers of people in refugee camps with no long term solution is a sure way to give yourself a migraine. Just ask the Thais what they think of North Koreans in detention centres.




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  3. I admire the optimistic spirit here but the MDL is still the most heavily fortified border on earth, with or without the ROK mines.
    It would be awesome if a path could be established for Norks to defect directly through the DMZ rather than the arduous circuit they must use to escape through China and other Asian countries to get to the ROK.
    If a path is cleared, clandestinely or otherwise, look for the zealous ROK Christian missionaries to exploit it as a way of reaching the underground Church in the DPRK. They are the main reason that the population of Norks in the ROK has soared from 17,000 today.




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  4. And more power to them KCJ. The Christian missionaries have been like an invisible hand helping to unravel the kim regime for quite some time now. They are the ones helping the north korean refugees. We cannot blame them for doing what they are supposed to do in terms of their religion. Feed the poor and spread the good word. They do not refuse to feed and house those refugees who refuge their message. They do pass on to them the deadliest thing of all to the Kim regime, information. One by one.




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  5. “Invisible hand” – God bless you, listener. That is a fascinating way to describe the clandestine work the missionaries are accomplishing for the underground Church in the DPRK.
    May God be pleased to bless their labor of love and fulfill the unravelling of the Juche idols.

    Not sure what happened to my post above, but the original said that in 1999 there were less than 1,000 defectors in the ROK. Today there are 17,000 including these intrepid balloon launchers hurling the prophetic smooth stone at Goliath’s head.




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  6. They cannot defect there anyway. They need travel permits to go to that region, and there is not exactly a convenient public transport link to the border. They don’t have cars. I have been there and I can tell you that anybody other than a soldier would be picked up in about five second of showing his face near the border. The whole area is literally empty of civilians.

    Even if they could get around all these problems there are still plenty of military units on both sides, and still mines left in the south and on the Northern side.

    South Korea doesn’t WANT a big flood of DPRK refugees anymore than Scandinavia wanted Soviet “refugees” in the 80s or 90s.

    This means nothing other than less risk for Southern farmers and hikers who move around in the areas concerned.

    And it’s not exactly like this piece of news is going to be in the news in North Korea.




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  7. Response to Martianka:

    They cannot defect there anyway. They need travel permits to go to that region, and there is not exactly a convenient public transport link to the border. They don’t have cars. I have been there and I can tell you that anybody other than a soldier would be picked up in about five second of showing his face near the border. The whole area is literally empty of civilians.

    Every bit of this is equally true of the North Korea-Chinese border, so that adds nothing to your argument. Certainly it would take time to make the DMZ porous, but that process begins with the removal of the mines. Without the mines, Borders are difficult to control. Just ask anyone in Arizona. The better argument is that the North Koreans would only emplace more mines on their own side of the DMZ, which might also require them to shift their border defenses. But then, why didn’t they do that on the Chinese border?

    South Korea doesn’t WANT a big flood of DPRK refugees anymore than Scandinavia wanted Soviet “refugees” in the 80s or 90s.

    No doubt, true of many South Koreans. But what about President Lee? I don’t claim to know that answer. Maybe this is, as you suggest, merely about “less risk for Southern farmers and hikers.” Then again, there have been some defections through the DMZ recently, mostly by soldiers. Those soldiers will be in the best position to observe where the mines are being removed, and the word will get around. Whether this is being done to allow a more gradual, soft-landing integration or not, refugee flows may be an unintended consequence.




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  8. Even with the mines removed is it still possible that North Koreans could now cross the DMZ? Isn’t the DMZ, unlike the Chinese border, highly monitored?

    A couple of months ago, a South Korean managed to defect to the North through the DMZ. He was able to do this, I think I remember reading, because he had done his military service in the same area where he crossed the border. I presume others could do the same thing.




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