In a step toward compliance with the Ottawa Convention, the United States government announced Tuesday it will no longer use anti-personnel landmines and destroy all of its existing stockpiles.
The U.S. will not enact a total ban on the use of landmines because of what it called “unique circumstances” in one area: the Korean Peninsula.
The Ottawa Convention (officially the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction) requires that signatory nations stop producing and developing all anti-personnel mines, as well as destroy all those in their possession within four years – excluding a small amount for mine-clearance training. The treaty also requires that a nation clear all minefields it has already laid within 10 years (though extensions may be granted). The ban does not cover anti-tank mines, remote-controlled mines – such as claymores – and other types of explosives.
The U.S. is one of several major powers – including China, India and Russia – yet to sign the Ottawa Convention. Neither of the two Koreas is a signatory either. It also does not look as though the U.S will be ready to sign the treaty just yet, as its newly announced ban on landmines will not be applied to the U.S. military’s operations on the Korean Peninsula, following the recommendations of American military leaders.
U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said “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 landline policy there at this time.”
There are several reasons why the U.S. views Korea as a “special case”; some specific to landmines and some more generic.
Photo: roblisameehan, Flickr Creative Commons
The decision to keep them was likely influenced by logistics and geography. Nearly every armed landmine in South Korea lies within the demilitarized zone separating the North from the South. Experts estimate that possibly millions of landmines (including both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines) currently lie within the Korean DMZ. Both sides regularly maintain and replenish their minefields to account for aging, accidental destruction (including by wildlife) and movement/destruction by weather. It would be an enormous and complex undertaking for the U.S. military to remove all of its landmines from the DMZ considering the many other obstacles in place and the difficulty in keeping track of every landmine’s location. It certainly could be done, but the U.S. appears to have deemed this more effort than its worth.
There is also geography, and how it impacts a common concern about landmines: danger to civilians. Because the minefields in Korea are at the DMZ, they do not lie where civilians typically live or travel. There is only one village in the DMZ (on the South’s side) but clear access roads are maintained.
But this doesn’t mean that there is no risk. Weather can move landmines and, in the rainy season, it is not unheard of for them to be washed into rivers and streams and then wash up on shore elsewhere. Again, though, the U.S. must have concluded the risk was relatively small.
A DIFFERENT MINDSET
Aside from logistics, the decision was surely influenced by how the U.S. sees the military situation on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. doesn’t see a resolution to the Korean conflict as likely anytime soon and, therefore, clearing the DMZ is not seen as an issue. However, the U.S. does feel a need to make contingency plans for a possible North Korean invasion – however unlikely that may be. A key part of the North’s strategy, were they to actually invade, would be a rapid advance to seize key ground (i.e. Seoul) as quickly as possible. Landmines play a major part in slowing the advance of a large ground force, so the U.S. military sees little benefit in removing the defensive fortifications they’ve already put in place.
Photo: Stephen_AU, Flickr Creative Commons
In a more general sense, though, the U.S. military has a tendency to view Korea, at least in terms of the military situation, as a relic of the Cold War. While elsewhere the American military thinks about fighting insurgents around population centers, Korea is often seen as the last place where the U.S. would likely fight a conventional war. Both aspects of this are debatable, as conventional warfare shouldn’t be ruled out elsewhere and, in reality, a war in Korea would take place amidst one of the world’s largest population centers, but the common perception still stands.
It is not uncommon nowadays for American soldiers, undergoing training to deal with conventional threats and warfare, to hear things such as, “You’ll only need to know this in Korea” with the implied sentiment that Korea is the only place where such warfare would still happen and that, even then, it’s not very important anyway.
The U.S. government’s decision to make such an exception for Korea in lieu of fully abandoning landmines and joining the Ottawa Convention shows that they continue to consider North Korea a threat and doubt the situation on the Korean Peninsula will be resolved anytime soon. This could continue to undermine the treaty, as the U.S. still will not sign, and may set a precedent for such “exceptions” for geographic areas.
Main photo: NanKuruNaiSa, Flickr Creative Commons
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