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N Korea at crossroads

Koreas start removal of DMZ mines in rush to ease tensions

US-led forces hesitate to sign onto disarmament after Moon-Kim summit

North and South Korea aim to disarm the Panmunjom Truce Village border zone by the end of October.
North and South Korea aim to disarm the Panmunjom area of the DMZ by the end of October.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- North and South Korea began Monday to remove landmines from the Demilitarized Zone separating them, the South's Defense Ministry said, as the long-hostile neighbors took the first step in a defusing process agreed on at last month's summit.

The demining project began at the Joint Security Area -- also known as the truce village of Panmunjom -- as well as farther east along the border in Cheorwon, Gangwon Province, where both sides plan to excavate Korean War remains. According to a bilateral military agreement, the mines at Panmunjom will be cleared out within 20 days, with guard posts, personnel and ordnance to be removed as well, with a goal of disarming the area completely within the month.

The U.S.-led United Nations Command, which oversees the DMZ, has refrained from fully endorsing the North-South military agreement that led to the mines' removal. And some in South Korea are wary of the reconciliation process speeding along with no visible progress in denuclearizing by the North.

The agreement also established a no-fly zone over the fortified border, to take effect Nov. 1. Fixed-wing aircraft will be unable to fly within 40 km of the border along its eastern part and within 20 km in the west, while unmanned craft will be barred from within 15 km of the border in the east and 10 km in the west. Helicopters will be barred from flying within 10 km of the border throughout its length.

Also from November, military exercises in the border region will be called off. Within the year, each side will remove 11 border observation posts on a trial basis. The agreement also includes setting up a bilateral military committee to discuss issues including stopping large-scale military drills, arms proliferation and spying activities.

In a Sept. 19 press conference following talks with Northern leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said they had agreed to "remove all threats that could possibly cause war on the Korean Peninsula."

For South Korea, which has been at odds with its neighbor since the Korean War began in 1950, easing military tensions has been a topic of major concern. Moon's office has said agreements struck at his summit with Kim were in effect equivalent to an end-of-war declaration, which both sides want to be made official.

A South Korean tank with a landmine-cleaning apparatus near the DMZ in 2000. The South is hastening to end military tensions with its neighbor. A South Korean tank with a landmine-cleaning apparatus near the DMZ in 2000. The South is hastening to end military tensions with its neighbor.   © Reuters

But U.N. Command has not yet expressed a clear stance on the issue. The general in line to take command of American troops in South Korea, Robert Abrams, said at his Sept. 25 confirmation hearing that "all activities with regards to the Demilitarized Zone are under the purview of U.N. Command," apparently suggesting the issue could not move forward based on agreements between North and South alone.

Though U.N. Command took part in the inter-Korean talks that approved the landmine removal process that began Monday, the U.S.-led body says it has not endorsed the agreement altogether. Its hesitance to take a clear stance on the matter is thought to stem from concerns that easing tensions too quickly could upset the military balance between the North and South.

It is highly problematic for South Korea's national defenses to be lifted without any progress on denuclearizing North Korea, said Shin Won-sik, a former top strategist for the Southern military's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Shin named the no-fly zone as a specific issue. The Northern military has a numerical advantage, but the South has an edge in quality, thanks to its surveillance and intelligence capacity, as well as its ability to conduct precision strikes with missiles and other weapons, Shin said. But with drones and other reconnaissance options off the table, the information-gathering that forms the core of the South's advantage will weaken.

Shin cited the North-South military joint committee as a problem as well. Negotiating with the North over matters like large military drills, arms proliferation and spying activities could limit the Southern military's ability to independently improve the national defense framework, he said.

The opposition Liberty Korea Party on Monday convened the first meeting of a special committee to verify the North-South military agreement. The parliamentarian of the conservative party chairing the committee charged the agreement "includes extremely dangerous content" and questioned whether it would really lead to a new era of peace as the government has claimed.

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