Troops from South and North Korea have begun demining the heavily fortified DMZ border area along the peninsula. It marks the two countries' latest joint gesture aimed at easing their decades-long military standoff.
South and North Korea began removing landmines scattered across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Monday as part of their pact to reduce military tensions on the divided peninsula.
The South Korean Defense Ministry said in a statement that the two sides had agreed to remove all mines, believed to be as many as 2 million, buried along the 250-kilometer-long (155-mile) DMZ over the next 20 days.
North Korea state media did not immediately report that it had begun removing landmines from its side of the DMZ. However, an anonymous defense official in Seoul told the AP news agency that the South's military had detected Northern Korean soldiers engaged in what it believed was demining along part of its sites.
Once the demining project is complete, troops from both sides plan to hold joint searches for the remains of soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War. The remains of some 300 South Korea soldiers are estimated to be scattered around a frontline area known as "Arrow Head Hill," located by the border. An unknown number of North Korean and Chinese soldiers are also believed to be buried there.
Mines dislodged by flooding and landslides have occasionally resulted in deaths on the South Korean section of the front line. Most recently in 2015, a landmine blast blamed on the North maimed two South Korea soldiers and even risked pushing the two countries to the brink of war.
The agreement to clear mines was confirmed during last month's meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang. The two leaders agreed on a package of tension-reducing deals, which also included the removal of 11 frontline guard posts and the creation of a no-fly zone over the border to prevent accidental clashes.
The talks marked a resumption in diplomacy following weeks of stalemated negotiations between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to visit the North Korean capital next month with the hope of setting up a second summit between President Donald Trump and Kim.
A spokesman for the US-led United Nations Command, which maintains a major role on the southern side of the peninsula, refused to comment over whether it would also withdraw its weapons from the area. US forces would, however, provide support for the demining operation.
"United States Forces Korea will perform a support role — to include having air medical evacuation assets available to respond within minutes of any potential medical emergencies," Colonel Chad Carroll said in a statement.
dm/msh (AP, Reuters, dpa)