An Eye-Opening “Landmine” Visit to the DMZ

April 19, 2009

Dear Fellow Human Security Classmates —

I recently took advantaged of my Hong Kong address to jump on a plane and visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.  Our fellow Human Security student David Cafferty calls it -and not without reason- “the Disneyland of IR”. Indeed, I bought more souvenirs there than I’ve ever bought anywhere else and I found it to be a fascinating place. I have studied the DMZ in different classes, but the chance to visit really opened my eyes, especially with regard to the AP-Landmine treaty.

Being in South Korea is actually an amazing opportunity to talk to people. What struck me as intriguing was that everyone assumed that reunification will happen. It does not even seem to be an issue there. They consider themselves as one nation that ‘should’ be one country.  Of course, no South Korean I’ve met wanted the regime of Pyongyang to be in charge. Seoul is about 60 Km from the DMZ and every South Korean must spend two years in the army after high school, though they can postpone it until they finish college (which is a nice incentive to study!).  You can see a lot of soldiers around in the city. This increases one’s awareness of what the country goes through.

One of the many ironic parts about the DMZ is that South Koreans are not allowed to enter without a month-long background check. When talking to Mr L, among many other South Koreans, he gave me the standard answer to my question about visiting the DMZ — “I don’t want to go. There is nothing there for me. It’s an attraction for tourists.”   Maybe so, but even though they have every gift shop I can think of and even a roller coaster (no kidding!), it sure as hell doesn’t feel like a tourist attraction.

The Joint Security Area is where the UN building is located right on top of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) which is the centre line of the DMZ, 2 Km from each side of the border. When you enter the DMZ you are escorted by two soldiers in a UN bus. This is after having signed an agreement stating that it is the ‘entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action’ is possible. Besides the legal mumbo jumbo that scares tourists in order to legally cover the UN’s back, it remains a serious threat and the 2 South Korean elite guards inside the joint conference room standing in a “relaxed” Taekwondo position are not there to amuse tourists. When talking to an American soldier, he explained that North Koreans don’t kid around and that some abuse often goes on when US or South Korean military hold a meeting in the room. Since the signing of the Armistice on the 17th of November 1954 over 50 Americans and over 500 South Koreans have died due to hostile North Korean action.

One of the main parts of the visit was going to what is called the 3rd tunnel. As it turns out, North Korea has tried to dig over 20 tunnels under the DMZ in order to enter South Korea. Sadly enough South Korea has only found 4 of them and mainly through the tips given by North Korean dissidents. It is suspected that this is how 31 elite soldiers from NK managed to get as far as the blue house [residence of the head of government] in the 90s in order to try to assassinate the president. [correction: even though I was told the tunnel was how these elite forces got in it appears a submarine might have been their way of entry].

When we talk about AP-landmines, we all think of some poor African kid who’s lost his leg. This is indeed a serious problem and no civilian should live under that fear. However, the DMZ is a 4 Km wide and is spread with 2 million landmines.  As it turns out the demilitarized zone is ironically the most militarized place on Earth and wisely so.  When one considers that North Korea has killed a couple of soldiers in the DMZ in the 1976 –the Panmunjom Axe Murder- and has tried to dig so many tunnels,  one is quite happy to know there are a couple million landmines between the two. The landmines have a function in this part of the world, they are not reminiscent from the Cold War left there by mistake.

It may not be surprising that countries like Canada and Sweden, that don’t need landmines, are quick to ban landmines from the face of the earth. However, when those landmines form a key barrier keeping at bay a totalitarian regime where each man spends about 10 years in the army and every women about 4, one is not so keen on wanting to ban them. Whether we like it or not those landmines have a role to play in that part of the world and they are not there out of a whim. If one thing has been made clear, it is that Kim Jong-il is not one for nuclear dissuasion and one can only wonder what he would have done if it were not for these landmines. For my part, I was quite happy to have them between me and them. Other parts of the world aside, on the Korean Peninsula, Landmines serve to protect real people from a real threat.

Paul-François Polidori

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6 Responses to “An Eye-Opening “Landmine” Visit to the DMZ”

  1. jfdupre Says:

    Dear P-F,

    I’d like to know your opinion on the long-term prospects for the region. It seems nobody wants to see the Northern regime fall at this particular moment, as it would greatly destabilise the region and potentially engender or exacerbate conflicts. I guess China (and Russia) would want to have their say on how to handle the situation, and their stance might diverge from that of South Korea, Japan and the USA.

    On the other hand, nobody is eternal, and I really
    wonder what the prospects are for a Kim Jong Il-less North Korea. My understanding is that there are 3 broad possible scenarios. Either there will be succession (to whom?–Could anyone from outside the Kim lineage manage to gain the credibility needed), factionalism and struggle for power (although (unlike Iraq) NK is lucky enough to be largely culturally homogenous, so no contendent can capitalise on ethnic rivalries), or transition (federalisation or absorption into the south)–this too however would be costly to the
    region. How long will the landmines remain there for?

    Now to be honest I don’t know much about the Korean situation. Am I missing something in this analysis?

    J-F

  2. lmcinhk Says:

    The International Crisis Group recently re-issued their call for the US to join the Ottawa Treaty (1997) (as well as the Oslo Treaty on Cluster Munitions). See the op-ed link here:

    http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=6068

    One of the points made be the authors of this op-ed is that substitute weapons systems exist that meet both the defense needs of states while at the same time not violating the terms of the treaty. I haven’t done the research to verify this fact, but it seems to me that this is the straightforward solution to landmines on the Korean Peninsula.

    If these substitute systems exist, then there is no excuse for countries that are not signing up to this treaty — those that do not are simply defending the vested interests of defense contractors and supporters of out-dated military practices.

    – LMC

  3. pfpolidori Says:

    Thank you both for your comments.

    I’ve just read the link that LMC attached and I was confused. They do not even give a clue about what kind of weapon would substitute the land mines. In any case I want to point out that if they’re looking for volunteers to get rid of those they have in the DMZ they’d better not knock on my door. I’m not sure how realistic it would be to send people in the DMZ to remove those landmines. In any case, if indeed there is an alternaive to landmines it is very good news. They might also want to consider how much it would cost to remove them and put in place another defence system. And yes, I do believe mone is an issue.

    I want to underline one clear thing about this new progress in technology. The fact that we nowadays ‘might’ have an alternative to landmines does not mean the Ottawa treaty was right. At the time of the Ottawa treaty this misterious technology clearly did not exist and those landmnes where still very much necessary. From 1999 to the present those landmine have kept people safe and we should probably not be judgemental about them now that we have better technology.

    i would love to know more about what new mechanisms they have to offer. In the mid-time, those landmines should stay where they are; Ottawa treaty or not.

    P-F

  4. pfpolidori Says:

    Dear J-F,

    i find the NK issue to be a very complex one and I’d love to be able to give a good answer to those questions but I can only offer my understanding of the situation.

    As far as I know, China and Russia have great concern with NK in term of the possible outcomes from a change in the regime. China might see itself having to absorb thousands into its borders. In any case the fall of a communist regime in the region might not be good PR for ‘The Party’ in China. As for Russia I have no idea what they are doing but I’d love to hear opinions on it.

    As for the 3 scenarios you offer the fanaticism in NK seems to be entrenched in the Kim dynasty so I think it would be hard for a newcomer to develop such strong devotion in his (I doubt it could be a she) persona.

    As for a struggle of power, in such a militarized country I don’tsee how anyone external to the military could have a say. In any case, NK is too secluded to have a clear say on potential candidates since we don’t even know who they are, much less their position.

    A transition is clearly a possibility but as I mentioned above I think China would be unhappy with the last communist regime turning democratic. moreover I’m not sure NKoreans are ready for a democracy. The brain-washing they have been undergoing for decades won’t help. In he case of South Korea absorbing the North I think it could be a nice alternative but we know that SK does not have the economic power that West Germany had [I have an article somewhere that I could dig out if you want]. In any case I think that, if SK is to absorb the North, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for other members of the P6 to give some aid in order to maintain stability. I think they’d need help.

    What other alternatives do you see as viable? How would Japan react during a time of uncertain transition? Where would the new Obama administration stand??

    P-F

  5. pfpolidori Says:

    I’d like to invite people to participate in this other discussion:

    http://hkuglobalstudies.wordpress.com/2009/03/31/north-korea-responding-to-the-the-rocket/#comment-113

    and also J-F gave me this link which I think anyone interested in this would enjoy:

    enjoy!

    P-F

    PS: if it’s ok with you I’d like to post a link on this other blog so people participate here too 😀


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