Home Commentary and Analysis Should the US Sign Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention?
Should the US Sign Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention?

Should the US Sign Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention?


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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member,
Public Administration at American Public University

The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention went into effect in 1997. Also known as the Ottawa Convention or the Mine Ban Treaty, it became binding international law in March 1999.

To date, 162 of the almost 200 nations in the world have signed this treaty. These 162 nations have pledged to destroy any stockpile of anti-personnel mines within four years of signing. They have also promised to clear their territories of all landmines within 10 years.

In 2014, the United States declared that it would abide by the treaty, except as it pertains to landmines on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. position is that the mines are essential to preventing North Korean forces from invading South Korea across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two nations.

Missing Landmines in the DMZ

The DMZ is approximately 2.5 miles wide and 150 miles long. It contains more than one million land mines, many planted during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Due to weather phenomena such as flooding, most of these landmines have shifted. Some of them have been moved to a significant degree. Today, no one knows where all the landmines are.

US Complies with Landmine Removal with Korean Exception

In 2014, Caitlin Hayden, former President Obama’s National Security Council spokesperson, stated that “the United States will not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel munitions that are not compliant with the Ottawa Convention, including replacing such munitions as they expire in the coming years.”

But she also added, “The unique circumstances on the Korean Peninsula and our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea preclude us from changing our anti-personnel landmine policy there at this time.”

However, Human Rights Watch Arms Director Steve Goose, countered that “There is no compelling justification for future United States use of landmines on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. should get rid of the Korea exception to its policy banning landmines and finally accede to the international treaty prohibiting these indiscriminate weapons.”

It is highly unlikely that North Korea plans to attack the South with a ground offensive across the DMZ. There are no known indications of a planned attack. In any case, there are also no indications that Kim Jung-un and the North Korean leadership would care if many soldiers died from landmine detonations while crossing the DMZ.

North Korea Prefers Underground Network Rather than DMZ Attacks

It appears the North Korean strategy is to operate underground as much as possible, as it did during the Korean War. It has already dug underground command and control bunkers, storage facilities, bunkers for troops, artillery shelters and other military installations as deep as 330 feet, making them difficult to find and destroy.

North Korea has innumerable underground tunnels into South Korea; these tunnels are large enough to transport vehicles. To date, only four tunnels have been officially discovered (and turned into tourist attractions). There are undoubtedly many more tunnels that remain undiscovered.

Why Haven’t We Removed Lethal DMZ Landmines?

A North Korean attack on South Korea across the DMZ would be suicidal, given U.S. and South Korean air superiority. Then why do we need to keep one million landmines there, randomly killing wildlife and farmers?

These land mines have essentially become the latest weapons of mass destruction. Since 1953, dozens of residents of Haean, a South Korean farming village less than a mile from the DMZ, have been killed or injured by stepping on landmines.

Activists estimate that thousands of poor, uneducated farmers have been killed or maimed by the landmines that  have been planted in the DMZ but shifted over time.

The U.S. needs to take the high road and join the other 162 nations in  signing the Ottawa Convention. Perhaps working with North and South Korea to remove the DMZ landmines would be a first step toward replacing the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 with a real peace treaty that would officially end the Korean War.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006.  He served as a Defense Attache in South Korea from 1995-1997.