World Corners US on Land Mine Pact

Over 100 nations set to sign treaty next week. But US seeks exemption for mines in Korea.

Neatly trimmed lawns are the only safe space American soldiers have to relax around Camp Bonifas here at the front-line of Korea's decades-old conflict.

The surrounding meadows of wildflowers, bramble, and birds hide countless land mines.

But land mines are welcomed by American troops along the Demilitarized Zone. Advocates claim they deter a North Korean blitz invasion. Without them, such an invasion would kill an additional 6,000 US and South Korean troops, say official estimates.

US insistence on the necessity for mines in a Korean war has put it at odds with more than 100 nations who plan to sign a treaty in Oslo next week banning "antipersonnel" land mines.

It is rare for the US to not get its way in arms control negotiations. If the treaty is approved without the Korea exemption that the US seeks, the world's sole superpower faces the prospect of joining Russia, China and such "rogue states" as Iraq and North Korea, all of which declined to attend, in spurning a cause championed by the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

"This is going to affect how ... the rest of the world views the Clinton administration," says Michael Leaveck of the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, an advocate of the treaty in Washington. "Diana's death has really put the spotlight on this issue," he says.

The White House, while praising Diana's contribution to the cause, shows no sign of backing down from its position, standing squarely behind the Pentagon's strong insistence for the Korean peninsula exemption.

Treaty advocates insist that a land mine ban in which three of the world's largest militaries are not parties will still be effective. They say that it will cover those states who have the millions of hidden land mines. The hope is that the US will eventually be shamed into adhering - if not joining - the treaty.

US commanders say that a key to blunting a North Korean onslaught into South Korea are tens of thousands of antipersonnel land mines sown along the demilitarized frontier established by the truce that stilled -- but left unresolved -- the 1950-53 Korean War.

"I think protecting the lives of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and the civilians on the South side ... is a humanitarian issue. And those mines are integral to the defensive structure," asserts Gen. John Tilelli Jr., the seniormost US commander. With the bulk of the 1-million-strong North Korean Army poised at the DMZ to strike at any time, he says, "Korea is unique."

Large numbers of the antipersonnel land mines employed along the border are used in conjunction with antitank land mines. The latter are laid in patterns to channel advancing North Korean armored columns into "killing zones," where they can be blasted by US aircraft and artillery.

But the antitank mines sit on the surface, leaving them vulnerable to neutralization by North Korean deminers, military officials explain. Antipersonnel mines are used to prevent that from happening.

Military officials also say that unlike the tens of millions of anti-personnel mines that claim some 800 unwitting victims every month in more than 60 countries, the locations of those on the Korean border are recorded on maps for use in future demining operations. "They are planned, they are marked, they used in accordance with doctrine," insists General Tilelli.

But experts, including a battery of retired US generals, reject the Pentagon's arguments.

They say that the US could adopt alternative defenses to the antipersonnel land mines that would allow it to join the Canadian-sponsored ban.

"I give very little credibility to antipersonnel mines from the standpoint of defending against North Korea," says retired Gen. James Hollingsworth, who commanded 13 US and South Korean divisions from 1973 to 1976 and designed the strategy for protecting Seoul. "They are easily removed by fuel-air bombs, breaching techniques, and artillery fire. These things are more or less a nuisance and won't play much of a roll."

General Hollingsworth agrees with analysts who argue that the US position in Oslo transcends the question of the utility of anti-personnel land mines for defending South Korea. For the Pentagon, they say, it is a matter of not allowing pressure groups and other governments to dictate doctrine to the world's mightiest military force.

Says Carl Conetta, an analyst with the Project on Defense Alternatives, a Cambridge, Mass., think tank: "The [US] military is constitutionally resistant to the involvement of arms controllers in setting strategic concepts."

US and South Korean officials say that using antipersonnel land mines will save lives. Computerized war games predict that as many as 6,000 US and South Korean soldiers would die if the weapons were removed. Mr. Conetta disputes those numbers, saying they are based "on the notion that these things are irreplaceable." If the US is intent on joining the treaty, he says, it would consider other approaches that are costly but just as practical.

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