U.S. Marine Corps explosive ordnance disposal technicians place thermites on anti-tank landmines to demonstrate how to clear mines without moving them during 2019's Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand.

U.S. Marine Corps explosive ordnance disposal technicians place thermites on anti-tank landmines to demonstrate how to clear mines without moving them during 2019's Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand. U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Jamin M. Powell

The US Remains the Exception on Land Mines

Biden has restored the near-global ban on these militarily ineffective weapons, but enshrined their continued use in South Korea.

A near-global ban on the use of anti-personnel land mines is once again U.S. policy, thanks to President Biden’s June 21 reversal of the Trump administration’s stance. This overdue fulfillment of a campaign promise brings the United States into alignment with key provisions of the Mine Ban Treaty: a pact signed by 164 nations, including every other NATO member, that bans developing, producing, using, acquiring, transferring, or exporting such mines.

But the Biden policy also enshrines the use of anti-personnel land mines, or APLs, on the Korean peninsula. Militarily unnecessary and morally wrong, this “Korean Exception” leaves the United States out of step with the global consensus—and until it’s removed, the United States will stand apart in its failure to fully ban them.

 Anti-personnel land mines have long been noted for their horrific and indiscriminate nature. Difficult and costly to clear, they inflict suffering on innocent civilians long after conflicts end. Unexploded bombs and land mines left behind largely from the Vietnam War have caused more than 105,000 casualties in Vietnam, nearly 65,000 in Cambodia, and over 50,000 in Laos. As recently as 2020, the three nations suffered 99 casualties collectively, of which 23 were children, according to the Landmine Monitor.

So where does the exception for the Korean peninsula come from? President Clinton floated the notion during the negotiations leading up to the Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention. When the global community rejected it, Clinton chose not to sign the Treaty, instead issuing a U.S. policy banning APLs everywhere but the Korean peninsula, referring to it “as a unique case.” 

Now, 25 years later, the Biden administration echoes President Clinton and repeats word-for-word the Obama administration’s claim that “the unique circumstances on the Korean Peninsula…preclude the United States from changing APL policy on the Korean Peninsula.” 

Dangerous and unnecessary

While one might assume that the “Korean Exception” is based on the need for mines in the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, between North Korea and South Korea, there is little evidence to support this. In fact, while the DMZ and adjacent Civilian Control Zone is one of the most mine-contaminated areas in the world, South Korea has not emplaced new mines for over twenty years and has cleared over 50,000 mines during the same period. Additionally the minefields along the DMZ are the responsibility of South Korea, not the United States. 

Further, the United States’ longstanding commitment to “deter aggression and if necessary, defend the Republic of Korea” does not benefit from the use of APLs. In 1995, former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Alfred Gray, Jr., said, “I know of no situation…where our use of mine warfare truly channelized the enemy and brought them into a destructive pattern.” The following year, 15 retired U.S. military commanders, including a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former supreme allied commander of Europe, and former commandant of West Point, came out against APLs, stating that “antipersonnel landmines are not essential” and “banning them would not undermine the military effectiveness or safety of our forces.” The Defense Department itself offered GAO no evidence that APLs “as employed actually caused or contributed to enemy losses” in the Persian Gulf War.

Beyond the military ineffectiveness of these weapons, the APLs already emplaced cause continued suffering among Korean civilians. There have been estimates of around a thousand casualties in South Korea over recent decades alone. Typhoons, landslides, and floods make landmines an ever-present threat for farmers and villages along the DMZ and CCZ. Emplacing new mines will only exacerbate the suffering and terror APLs inflict on Korean civilians.

New ways forward

Perhaps most importantly for the Korean peninsula’s future, the minefields along the DMZ and CCZ have served as an opportunity for de-escalation and confidence-building between the two nations. In fact, in 2018 North and South Korea agreed to jointly clear land mines around the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom and Arrowhead Hill (also known as Hill 281) in the DMZ.

During the operations at the JSA, North and South Korean demining teams cleared tens of thousands of square miles of land cleared, bringing the teams close enough to exchange greetings and hold conversations. While the joint operations ended in 2019, demining offers a concrete and compelling opportunity to strengthen the prospect of peaceful relations between the Koreas.

This new policy is an important step and corrects for the Trump administration’s egregious 2020 policy. But lawmakers and the administration must not be content with it. If the president is serious about the United States “ultimately acceding to the Ottawa Convention,” then he should move quickly to end the Korean Exception. In doing so, he can seize the opportunity to both build peace on the Peninsula and put the U.S. fully inline with the global consensus against these weapons. 

A year ago, over a dozen members of Congress in a bicameral, bipartisan letter urged President Biden to put the “United States on a definitive path to accede to the treaty” by 2024. For the sake of the United States’ moral standing and the safety of civilians around the world, the president should heed this call.

Ursala Knudsen-Latta is the lead lobbyist for peacebuilding at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and a key leader in coalition efforts to ban landmines.