[From the scene] S. Korea’s ‘Hurt Locker’ mission: Removing landmines in DMZ

By Yeo Jun-suk

The Korea Herald travels with demining specialists to watch removal operation

Published : Oct 3, 2018 - 13:15
Updated : Oct 4, 2018 - 11:45

CHEORWON, Gangwon Province -- A group of soldiers who gathered at the entrance of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone in Cheorwon began picking up gear for a special mission Tuesday: grass cutters, metal detectors and air pressurizers.

It is day two of the mission to locate land mines buried at Arrowhead Ridge in Cheorwon County, Gangwon Province, one of the two major sites where the two Koreas began demining operations to clear the path for excavation of the remains of those killed during the 1950-53 Korean War. 

The soldiers’ journey involves traveling through no man’s land at the heart of the Korean Peninsula. About 2 million mines are thought to be buried across the 250-kilometer-long, 4-kilometer-wide DMZ.

“Safety is of our utmost concern. We are not going to rush anything,” an Army general overseeing the mine removal operation tells a group of reporters at a guard post inside the DMZ. Citing military regulations, the general requested anonymity.

“While there is no written record about the massive planting of land mines, we have to be extremely careful. We might come across unexploded bombs or anything else that could harm our service members,” he says.

A group of soldiers Tuesday engage in land removal mission at the Demilitarized Zone in Cheorwon, Gangwon Province. Yonhap


Toward the end of the Korean War in 1953, a fierce battle was fought here between the militaries of North Korea and China on one side and the allied forces of South Korea, US and the United Nations on the other. The battle over control of the stronghold resulted in thousands of casualties.

Hence the choice of the particular area for land mine removal operations at last month’s inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang. The other site to be demined is near the Joint Security Area inside the border village of Panmunjom.

While North Korea has yet to provide information about the location and schedule of its own demining operations, the South Korean commander says North Korea might have launched similar steps, though it is hard to see from the southern side.

“We suspect that North Korea’s land mines are mostly buried behind the mountainous area, so what we can observe is limited. But we’re pretty sure they did the same thing in their own area,” the commander says.

Teamwork is the most important thing in removing mines. When mines are found by those at the front of a search team, those following behind remove obstacles until explosive ordnance disposal specialists are able to take the mines out of the DMZ for removal.

Due to the excruciating nature of the demining process, the 12-member crew can only work a total of four hours per day -- two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Rotation takes place every 10 to 15 minutes.

Such restrictions -- compounded by the weight of heavy mine removal equipment and protective gear -- limit the extent of the search area that can be covered before the demining operation ends in November.

“If snow falls, the search area ground will freeze. It’s an extremely harsh condition for detecting mines and removing them. We are seeking to speed up the process before winter arrives,” the commander says.

An Army general commanding the demining operation briefs reporters about the location of buried mines and the procedure to search for them. Yonhap

South Korea’s military suspects that unlike other land mine zones inside the DMZ, the number of land mines at Arrowhead Ridge may be small. Mines are usually buried on flat ground where little fighting takes place, not rocky hilltops where fierce battles occur.

The obvious challenge for the demining crew is that it does not know exactly where the mines have been planted. The military believes that if Arrowhead Ridge was not a meticulously designed mine burial site, fighting forces could have planted them at random.

The demining experts’ best guess is that the mines could have been buried along the trenches surrounding Arrowhead Ridge, a major transportation route for combat forces under the hail of gunfire during the war.

“We are going to conduct search operations along the trench. From there, we are going to expand the search area incrementally. It is like using previous pathways before venturing into a new area,” the commander says.

The demining operation is being conducted under the watchful eye of personnel from the United Nations Command, which controls the DMZ. Two UNC personnel stand at the entrance of the restricted zone and monitor convoys carrying mine-removal equipment. 

There has been no breakthrough in the removal operation since it began Monday. Neither land mines nor war remains had been found at the mountainous region as of Tuesday midday. Only a few unexploded bombs had been recovered, according to the military.

However, the demining crew hope to discover more mines and remains at Arrowhead Ridge before the two Koreas launch a joint excavation project in April. When a cross-border road is completed in November, they will have better access to the search site.

“We have been preparing the demining operation for about three months and most of the military personnel dispatched to the operations are experienced. We are committed to completing our mission without any mistakes,” the commander says.

By Yeo Jun-suk(jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)


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