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In South Korea, land mines remain a threat

The devices have taken a toll on Haean, a farm community of 1,400 people south of the DMZ. The South Korean government's mine removal proceeds slowly, and victims are rarely compensated.

By John M. Glionna

December 23, 2009

Reporting from Haean, South Korea

As she rubs the stump where her left ankle used to be, Park Choon-young recalls her life in this town that she calls a cursed place, a no man's land where the very ground is fraught with peril.

Countless land mines planted here, she says, have wreaked an incredible personal toll: The petite 84-year-old widow lost two sons and a grandson to explosions after they accidentally detonated mines while walking in the dense woods outside town.

About four decades ago, Park also stepped on a mine in a farm field. Now she limps about on a recently fitted prosthesis that cuts into her swollen flesh, raising raw and bloody welts.

"I'm old now, my withered leg is getting skinnier," she said, wiping away tears as she huddled beneath a blanket on the floor of her one-room hovel. "It's getting so cold. My leg hurts when it's cold."

Just half a mile south of the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, this isolated farming community of 1,400 residents has become a realm of the walking wounded.

Perhaps tens of thousands of land mines -- menacing reminders of the Korean War half a century ago -- still litter the picturesque valley of birch treesand terraced fields, which is known as "the punch bowl" for its sloping, concave shape.

The area was the scene of some of the most savage hand-to-hand fighting of the 1950-53 war, including the battles of Bloody Ridge and Heartbreak Ridge, as both sides fought for the towering vantage point of the surrounding Kumgang mountains.

For many residents, the violence has not ended.

Since 1953, dozens of Haean residents have been killed or maimed when they stepped on mines. The victims include a farmer killed this year and another who lost part of his leg in October while searching the mountainside for medicinal plants.

Activists estimate that about 1,000 civilians nationwide -- mostly poor, uneducated farmers who live in the rural towns along the 151-mile-long DMZ -- have been hurt or killed by some of the 1.2 million mines buried there.

The devices' versatility is lethal: Made of both metal and plastic, some mines are designed to explode twice, once at ground level and again after bouncing 6 feet into the air.

In Haean, these hidden legacies of war have left only bitterness.

South Korean military officials declined to comment for this article, other than to say they provide mine victims with emergency care and some follow-up treatment. They contend that the devices play a defensive role in the continuing standoff with North Korea.

Unlike in other former war zones, the mines remaining here are in secure areas labeled as hazardous zones, where intruders proceed at their own peril, military officials note.

For their part, victims say their government has deserted them, offering little or no compensation for their injuries. But what's worse, they say, is that many were treated harshly, often verbally reprimanded for their calamities.

"These mines were supposed to kill the enemy, but instead they're killing innocent people," Park said. "How can they blame us? Why didn't they clean up their own mess after their war?"

Riddled with mines

The Korean peninsula, experts say, remains one of the world's most land-mine-choked regions.

Millions of the devices were laid by both sides during the Korean War. For decades, as the stalemate dragged on, South Korea set even more mines as a precaution against invasion, and it continues to keep a vast stockpile of the devices. Along with the United States, South Korea has refused to join 35 other nations in signing an international treaty to ban land mines.

In 2000, the military began removing mines in heavily populated areas but quickly found the process -- conducted by soldiers -- cumbersome and expensive, says a report this year from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

One major problem is that, because of incomplete records, the military doesn't know where many devices are hidden. From 2006 through 2008, the military removed only 11,570 land mines, the report says.

As part of postwar rebuilding efforts, the government offered cheap land to attract settlers to battle-ravaged areas such as Haean, activists say.

For years, a succession of military dictatorships forced settlers to sign agreements assuming blame if they stepped on a device, relieving the government of responsibility.

And in recent years, the military has not been forthright about the civilian toll the land mines have exacted, activists say. In fact, as recently as 1997, officials said there were no civilian victims and that there were no mines south of the DMZ.

"The government simply did not want to let the nation know there were so many land mines," said Moon Eun-young, secretary-general of Global Peace Sharing Korea, a coalition of groups opposed to land mines. "That's when our group started to look for victims. When we found them, we told them, 'This is not your fault.' "

"Victims were afraid to complain," said Kim Ki-ho, head of the Korea Research Institute for Mine Clearance. "It only brought trouble."

Although more recentgovernment administrations claim to have established a process for victim aid, the program has served few. Only seven civilian land mine compensation claims have been successful since 2002, according to the 2009 report on land mines.

For years, a national bill to offer aid to past victims such as Park has failed to pass, forcing many to wait for government aid.

"One lawmaker's aide asked me, 'Why is your group fussing when victims are quiet and doing nothing?' " Moon said. "You have to understand that these victims are at the bottom. Mentally, financially, they have nothing. Worse, they have lost legs."

Meanwhile, the government's mine removal program moves slowly forward.

"If they keep to this current pace," Kim said, "it will take 375 years to be rid of all the mines."

Affordable land

Park Choon-young moved to Haean 50 years ago, when her husband died and left her with five children. Land was cheap here.

Back then, villagers used metal detectors to carefully scour for mines on their farms. They disabled the devices and sold the parts. They were so successful that the military asked many to conduct mine searches rather than use the more inexperienced soldiers.

Yet, one by one, the accidents happened. It was like Russian roulette: Who would be hit next?

Park's turn came in 1967. She was picking vegetables on her small farm when she spotted some greens growing near a drain. She reached down and a mine exploded, taking her left foot.

After she recuperated, she continued to work the farm using crutches. What choice did she have? But she never felt safe again.

The region is divided into three areas, Park and others say: the hazardous zone, where mines are known to be present; a probable zone; and a so-called safe zone.

But the lines often blur. Summer rains wash mines from the mountain's northern slope. "They settle on farms, in stream beds, along the roadside," Park said. "No place is safe."

Poverty forces villagers to wander into the mountains -- even to cordoned-off areas -- in search of food and firewood, Park said.

They know the dangers, but after some time passes without an accident, they start to trust the land again. Slowly, they get braver.

Then another explosion will occur. Or someone will find a deer carcass with its legs blown off. Once, a town official picked up a mine in a field. It exploded in his hand and gouged out an eye.

In October, Kim Eun-man lost his leg in an area that he said had been proclaimed safe. Military officials offered no compensation and instead marked off the field with warning signs, Kim said.

At the Haean senior center, Kim Ok-ja pulled herself across the floor like an infant. A land mine had shattered her left hip. She would like to leave the area but is too poor to move.

"If only I'd known what awaited me," said Kim, 74, "I would never have moved here."

Paek Choon-ok, 72, nodded in agreement. She walks with a cane now, having lost her right leg 12 years ago while picking vegetables on the mountain.

Years earlier, her 8-year-old son was killed searching for scrap metal in the forest. No one has offered her financial help.

"There is an unspoken message that you have to suffer this on your own," she said.

"They say, 'No one forced you to go to that forest.' And so I tell myself, 'Be quiet and suffer. No one wants to hear your story.' "

Haean administrator Jeong Chung-seob acknowledges that few people have looked kindly on land mine victims here.

"Many feel they should be punished for entering restricted areas," he said. "But that stand is softening."

Not quickly enough for Park Choon-young.

Three years before her oldest son and a grandson were killed in 2001 while hunting rabbits, another son was maimed by a mine. After 10 years, he succumbed to his injuries.

Park says she misses her boys, all three of them, as well as her foot. She rues her decision to move to Haean.

Her face is wrinkled, puffy from crying.

"I'm all alone now," she said. "I have nothing."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Park Ju-min of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.





Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times