In his Tuesday address to the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York City, President Barack Obama announced that the United States will not use anti-personnel land mines anywhere “outside the unique circumstances of the Korean Peninsula,” echoing his administration’s policy announcement released earlier that day. Also, apart from those needed to defend South Korea, the U.S. will destroy its land mine stockpiles.
The announcement brought the U.S. closer to fully embracing the Mine Ban Treaty, which was successfully negotiated 17 years ago this month in Oslo, Norway, and signed by 122 nations three months later in Ottawa, Ontario. The treaty prohibits the use, production, trade, and stockpiling of land mines and obligates mine-contaminated countries to clear affected areas. All states that are party to the treaty must also contribute to clearance and to victim assistance.
Despite calling for the “eventual elimination” of anti-personnel land mines back in 1994, the United States did not sign the 1997 treaty, because of their supposed importance to safeguarding South Korea’s northern border. Since then, the U.S. has remained the biggest contributor to land mine clearance and victim assistance around the world — donating more than $2.3 billion dollars for efforts in 90 countries — even as three successive presidential administrations (those of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Obama) have grappled with the contradiction of its financial commitment to help clear land mines and its refusal to join the treaty. With this latest announcement, the U.S. has taken yet another step toward closing that gap.
Five years into the Obama administration’s land mine policy review and after those performed by each of the two previous administrations, the White House’s movement toward a complete ban, coupled with earlier steps taken in June, is welcome news. Also welcome during Obama’s speech was his recognition of civil society — the land mine campaign — as the instigator of the process that led to the Mine Ban Treaty.
While the U.S. is now extremely close to banning land mines, it is disappointing that South Korea continues to be the stated reason for not joining the Mine Ban Treaty. In South Korea and everywhere else in the world, land mines are illegal, indiscriminate weapons that can kill and maim long after the end of armed conflicts, which means that those affected by this lethal detritus of war are civilians.
Land mine activists like me have always rejected the defending–South Korea argument. Fifteen former high-ranking U.S. military officials signed an open letter calling on Clinton to ban land mines even before the Mine Ban Treaty was negotiated. Some of those officials had been involved in the defense of South Korea and noted that the lowly anti-personnel land mine was the least needed weapon for the defense of the border. After all — and in a supreme bit of irony — there is no more highly guarded and defended border on the planet than the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. Land mines, the officials stated, were long ago made irrelevant and redundant with the multiple overlapping defenses south of the DMZ.
Also relevant is that the land mines in the DMZ belong not to the United States but to South Korea, which continues to argue that they are necessary to defend itself. This fact gets at what may be the crux of the issue: the U.S.–South Korea command structure. Under current arrangements, during active hostilities, South Korean forces would come under U.S. command. If the U.S. joined the treaty, in the event of war, it would either have to order South Korea not to use land mines or be in violation of the treaty. Independent of the land mine situation, the two countries agreed several years ago to change the arrangement and leave South Korea’s troops under South Korean command, but the change has been postponed several times.
Perhaps the easiest resolution of the Korean conundrum is for both countries to become part of the treaty and join the other 162 countries — 80 percent of the world — that have already done so.