How landmine removal on the Korean peninsula could help build much-needed trust

Everyone loves a good love story. The Netflix original series “Crash Landing on You,” a Korean drama about a South Korean heiress who falls in love with a North Korean soldier, has been praised for its creative plot and for its nuanced portrayal of North Koreans, brought to life by a North Korean defector on the show’s writing team.

But the show breezes over a dangerous reality in the Koreas, brought back into focus by the Trump administration’s recent decision to allow U.S. forces to once again use landmines anywhere in the world.

In “Crash Landing on You,” a rich South Korean woman accidentally paraglides into North Korea but manages to return to South Korea by running across the demilitarized zone (DMZ). While she’s in North Korea she falls in love with a North Korean soldier, who eventually helps her cross back into South Korea.

In the real world, none of this would be possible. The DMZ and surrounding areas are covered with nearly a million landmines, laid by the U.S. and ROK forces during and after the Korean War.

According to the Korea Campaign to Ban Landmines, the vast majority of the mines in South Korea were planted outside the DMZ after the war’s end to guard U.S. military installations that have long since been removed. Unexploded remnants remain there, threatening the rural towns that live along the DMZ. It is estimated that a thousand civilians have been killed or maimed by the landmines in South Korea in recent decades.

Landmines have been called “a weapon of mass destruction in slow motion.” Each year, thousands of civilians — in the Korean peninsula, Afghanistan, Laos, Vietnam and elsewhere — die or get wounded by non-detectable mines, which can remain active long after a conflict has ended.

Outraged by the toll on non-combatants who bear the main toll of death and injury, the world came together to outlaw research, production, and use of anti-personnel landmines in the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997.

Although the Clinton administration was sympathetic to the treaty, and the U.S. military effectively stopped using landmines in 1991 — except for on the Korean peninsula — the United States never joined this treaty.

The Obama administration reviewed the issue for three years and reaffirmed the status quo: a self-imposed ban on anti-personnel landmines outside of Korea. In both administrations, liberal presidents deferred to their generals, who insisted they could not do without the minefields in South Korea.

In reality, what seems to concern U.S. military leadership is the idea of having a weapon taken out of its arsenal, which had only happened once before when chemical weapons were banned.  As General Eric Shinseki told Senator Patrick Leahy about the military’s rationale for landmines: “We don’t want ’em, we don’t need ‘em, we don’t use ’em—and we’re not going to get rid of them.”

What the United States allows and does not allow in warfare, and the extent to which the United States abides by international laws on the use of force and banned weapons, speak to our ethical norms and values.

Lives in the Korean peninsula are no less important than lives in the rest of the world. The Obama administration should never have permitted the military to retain the prerogative to use an internationally banned weapon in the Korean peninsula.

Fast forward to today, and the Trump administration has now given the U.S. military permission to use antipersonnel mines anywhere in the world. In January 2020 Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that going forward: “the Military Departments and Combatant Commands will take feasible precautions to protect civilians from the use of landmines, record all necessary information concerning mined areas, and address such mines without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.”

By repealing the ban on antipersonnel landmines, President Trump risks making the dangerous reality of the DMZ the same dangerous reality that the world may have to contend with elsewhere.

The American public should demand why these deadly weapons might be used against countries like Russia and China, as Secretary Esper suggested, and what safeguards will be in place to avoid accidental exposure by civilians.

Rather than expanding their use, the Trump administration should explore ending the use of mines on the Korean peninsula as a confidence-building measure.

This work may not be a Netflix-worthy plot, but bringing the two Koreas together to agree to clear landmines may be much more beneficial toward inter-Korea reconciliation than trying to bridge lovers from opposite sides of the 38th parallel.

“Rather than envisioning new uses for landmines, whether in the Korean peninsula or elsewhere, the United States would be better served by emphasizing their removal – efforts for which it is currently the world’s largest donor,” Jeff Abramson, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, recently told me.

“In 2018, North and South Korea worked together on a small demining project. Future ones could serve as confidence-building measures for the two countries.”

“Crash Landing on You” invites us to imagine a world where love can transcend borders. It has engendered fresh interest in the lives of the North Korean people, whom policy debates and popular culture in the West regularly ignore.

Anti-militarism activists should use the opportunity to talk about antipersonnel landmines and why they have been banned by most countries for the past 20 years, but not in the Koreas.

This article originally appeared in NK News.