Floods prompt concerns over buried mines

Posted on : 2011-07-30 06:19 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Past heavy rains in S.Korea have led to accidental anti-personnel mine detonations

By Kim Do-hyung, Senior Staff Writer

With renewed attention to the burial of anti-personnel mines on Seoul’s Mt. Umyeon, the site of a landslide this week, concerns are rising about potential damages from mines unaccounted for after their planting near rear units since the 1960s.

According to an announcement Thursday from the Ministry of National Defense, one thousand M14 anti-personnel land mines were planted in the vicinity of an anti-aircraft corps atop Mt. Umyeon in the 1980s. Of these, 980 were removed and one detonated independently, leaving nineteen as yet uncollected.

Korea Research Institute for Mine Clearance Director Kim Ki-ho cited Defense Ministry data from 2006 during a telephone interview Friday with the Hankyoreh.

“Following the raid by Kim Shin-jo and other armed spies in 1968, defense authorities responded to the possibility of a North Korean ambush on anti-aircraft bases [radar bases], which are major military facilities, by planting 60,568 land mines at 36 sites throughout the country [39 operational zones] through the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympics,” Kim said. “Since then, a total of 56,632 have been removed, leaving 3,036 currently unaccounted for.”

Military authorities recovered many of the land mines in rear areas through a clearance effort between 1999 and 2007, but are facing difficulties with further removals due to the large number of mines whose location is unknown due to factors such as heavy rains. They have addressed this by increasing the amount of barbed wire around major land mine areas and putting up signs reading “Former Land Mine Area.”

In addition to Mt. Umyeon, the areas harboring the hazard of lost mines include Sagimak Valley, site of the Namhansan Fortress park area in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province; Taejongdae, a leading tourism destination in Busan’s Yeongdo District; Homigot in Pohang; and Mt. Munhak in Incheon. But the actual number of unremoved anti-personnel land mines is known to be far greater, as the sites mentioned do not include around ten areas where U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) planted anti-personnel land mines following the Korean War.

A number of accidents have occurred over the years due to lost land mines, leading to fatalities and loss of limbs. According to materials released followed a Green Korea information disclosure request to the Defense Ministry in August 2010, a total of 32 mines exploded in South Korea in the eight years between 2001 and 2008, leading to six deaths and injuries to 35 people.

In particular, explosions were found to have often occurred just after typhoons or heavy rains. The year 2002, when Typhoon Rusa made landfall, saw no fewer than ten anti-personnel land mine detonations, killing two and injuring sixteen.

All six of the fatal explosions that occurred over the past eight years took place after typhoons or heavy rains, including five that took two lives and injured four people in 2003, when Typhoon Maemi passed through South Korea, and six that took two lives and injured five people in 2005, when Typhoon Nabi passed through.

“It appears that the accidents occurred because land mines were swept outside the operational area as the sites where they were planted collapsed or were exposed by sudden heavy rains,” explained Green Korea.

Mines have also posed a problem for fighting forest fires. In 2007, a firefighter lost a leg after stepping on a land mine when a forest fire occurred at Taejongdae. An April 2009 forest fire in Homigot resulted in the mobilization of over three thousand civilians and POSCO employees and forty fire trucks, but the area ended up sustaining major damages when the extinguishing effort failed due to the risk of explosions by lost mines.

M14 anti-personnel land mines are cylindrical plastic devices measuring 5.5 cm in diameters and 4 cm in height and weighing 95 grams. Because they have a specific gravity below water, they may be swept away when heavy rains occur. Their original color is army issue green, but because their color fades to gray after a long period of burial, they are difficult to distinguish from fallen leaves.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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