SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean troops entered the heavily fortified border with North Korea on Monday to remove mines under tension-reducing agreements reached last month. Seoul says North Korea is expected to begin its own demining as well.
The development comes amid renewed international diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program after weeks of stalemated negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to visit Pyongyang this month to try to set up a second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
On Monday, units of South Korean army engineers with demining equipment were deployed to the border village of Panmunjom and another frontline area called “Arrow Head Hill” where the Koreas plan their first joint searches for soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War.
The troops will try to remove mines on the southern parts of the two sites while North Korea is required to do the same on their northern sides. In the “Arrow Head Hill,” where some of the fiercest battles during the Korean War happened, Seoul officials believe there are remains of about 300 South Korean and U.N. forces along with an unspecified number of Chinese and North Korean remains.
The Korean War left millions dead or missing, and South Korea wants to expand joint excavations with North Korea. The Koreas remain split along the 248-kilometer (155-mile)-long Demilitarized Zone that was originally created as a buffer zone at the end of the Korean War. About 2 million mines are believed to be peppered inside and near the DMZ, which is also guarded by hundreds of thousands of combat troops, barbed wire fences and tank traps on both sides.
South Korean Defense Ministry officials said they couldn’t immediately confirm whether North Korea also began any demining-related works on Monday. But they said they expected the North to abide by the tension-easing deals their defense chiefs struck on the sidelines of their leaders’ summit last month in Pyongyang.
Aiming to reduce conventional military threats, the Koreas’ defense chiefs also agreed to withdraw 11 frontline guard posts by December and set up buffer zones along their land and sea boundaries and a no-fly zone above the borderline to prevent accidental armed clashes.
Later Monday, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in defended the military deals that he said would “end all hostile acts at the land, sea and sky between South and North Korea.” In a midday speech marking South Korea’s 70th Armed Forces Day, Moon also called for a stronger national defense, saying “peace can continue only when we have power and are confidant of protecting ourselves.”
Moon, a liberal who aspires to achieve greater ties with Pyongyang, is a main driving force behind U.S.-North Korean nuclear diplomacy. But critics of his engagement policy have lambasted his recent inter-Korean military deals, saying a mutual reduction of conventional military strength would eventually weaken South Korea’s war readiness because the North’s nuclear program largely remains intact.
Many experts say the fate of inter-Korean deals can be affected by how nuclear negotiations would go between the United States and North Korea. Past rapprochement efforts were often stalled after an international standoff over the North’s nuclear ambitions intensified.
After provocative tests of three intercontinental ballistic missiles and a powerful nuclear weapon last year, North Korea entered talks with the United States and South Korea earlier this year, saying it’s willing to deal away its expanding nuclear arsenal. Kim Jong Un has subsequently held a series of summits with U.S., South Korean and Chinese leaders and taken some steps like dismantling his nuclear-testing site.
Nuclear diplomacy later came to a standstill amid disputes over how genuine North Korea is about its disarmament pledge. But Trump, Pompeo and other U.S. officials have recently reported progress in the denuclearization discussions with the North. Pompeo is to make his third trip to North Korea soon for talks.
Meanwhile, on Monday, South Korea held a ceremony marking the recent return of remains of 64 South Korean soldiers missing from the Korean War. They were earlier found in North Korea during a joint 1996-2005 excavation project between the United States and North Korea before forensic identification tests in Hawaii confirmed they belong to South Korean war dead, according to Seoul’s Defense Ministry.