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[Editorial] First step

Two Koreas begin work to remove land mines in border areas

South Korea and North Korea have begun work to remove land mines in the Joint Security Area and a mountainous area inside the Demilitarized Zone. The land mines to be taken away from the two areas would be only a small portion of the 1 million believed to have been buried along the border, but the work should be seen as a big step.

The mine-removing work is being undertaken in line with an agreement between the two Koreas’ militaries to reduce tensions and prevent accidental clashes by halting “all hostile acts on the land, in the sea and air.”

The agreement is based on the peace agreements made by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in their three meetings this year, the most recent one in Pyongyang last month.

The two sides, which already stopped propaganda broadcasts alongside the border after the first Moon-Kim meeting, agreed to designate a “peace zone” in the West Sea, pull out some of the armed guard posts inside the DMZ and halt live-fire drills near the border.

Some of the latest agreements faced criticisms from conservatives in the South who argue such measures being taken without a substantial progress in denuclearizing North Korea weaken South Korea’s military readiness.

There are some grounds for the concerns. For instance, the two Koreas agreed to withdraw the same number of guard posts -- 11 from each side -- from the DMZ on a trial basis. That is not fair, because the North runs many more guard posts and observation posts inside the DMZ than the South does.

Nonetheless, the two Koreas’ efforts to remove land mines should be separated from other controversial tension-reduction programs. Rather, the two sides ought to take advantage of the initiative to bring an end to one of the most dreaded human inventions.

Mines are one of the most savage, vicious means to deter enemies, with the bigger problem being that they threaten the lives of innocent people, including civilians and children, as well. Once planted, they are very difficult to detect and remove.

It is sad that Korea has the world’s highest density of these detestable weapons. The South Korean Defense Ministry estimates that there are a total of 1.1 million land mines in Korea, 1.05 million of those being around the inter-Korean border. Many of the mines were laid by US forces during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Given this reality, the joint mine-removing work that was launched early this week could only be a small step, though its significance should not be underestimated. Officials said the work in the JSA, which houses the truce village of Panmunjeom, and Cheorwon will continue through Oct. 20 and Nov. 30 this year, respectively.

The work in Cheorwon will focus on Arrowhead Ridge, where fierce battles took place during the Korean War, killing about 200 South Korean soldiers and about 300 foreign servicemen who participated in the war under the UN flag.

The mine-removing work in the area is basically aimed to pave the way for a joint excavation of the remains of those who perished in the war. The excavation work is set to last seven months, beginning in April.

Getting the remains of the fallen soldiers to their family members has gained international attention recently in the wake of the North’s repatriation of some remains of American soldiers who were killed in the Korean War to the US. The peace gesture followed the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

On Monday, South Korea also received 64 sets of remains of soldiers from the US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii to which they had been taken from the North along with those of American servicemen. The remains were recovered by the North-US joint excavation from 1996-2005.

Given that there are about 124,000 Korean soldiers whose remains have yet to be recovered, the excavation program needs to be expanded, for which enlarging the mine-free areas step by step is essential.

Indeed, removing land mines would be much easier than taking other measures to end hostilities. It would be good if the two Koreas made follow-up moves to take away all the land mines in the DMZ in the near future. The peninsula should be free of not only nuclear weapons, but also land mines.