WASHINGTON — The United States on Tuesday limited its military’s use of land mines worldwide, except for on the Korean Peninsula, meeting President Biden’s campaign pledge to undo a Trump-era policy that he had called “reckless.”
The move effectively returns to a 2014 policy established by the Obama administration that forbade the use of antipersonnel land mines except in defense of South Korea. The Trump administration loosened those restrictions in 2020, citing a new focus on strategic competition with major powers with large armies.
Human rights groups have long condemned antipersonnel land mines — small explosive weapons that typically detonate after an unsuspecting victim steps on them — as a leading cause of preventable civilian casualties. Land mines kill thousands of people per year, many of them children, often long after conflicts have ended and the munitions are forgotten.
A White House statement on Tuesday said that the move would put the United States back among “the vast majority of countries around the world in committing to limit the use of antipersonnel land mines” and closely align U.S. policy with a 1997 treaty signed by 133 countries to ban the weapons entirely. The United States never signed the treaty, known as the Ottawa Convention, and the White House stopped short of saying it would seek to join the pact.
One reason is that the Biden administration is maintaining an exception for use of land mines along the Demilitarized Zone, the 2.5-mile-wide buffer that has divided North and South Korea since 1953. The United States placed thousands of mines there during the Cold War to help deter an overwhelming ground invasion from the North.
South Korea took custody of the minefields in October 1991, according to a spokeswoman for U.S. Forces Korea. But some proponents for banning land mines say that if the United States were party to the Ottawa Convention, it would face restrictions on its cooperation with South Korea’s military as a result of the presence of mines in the area.
Those advocates had hoped for quicker action on Mr. Biden’s campaign promise, which was held up because of a Pentagon policy review dating to at least April 2021. In 2020, Mr. Biden’s campaign told Vox that he would “promptly roll back this deeply misguided decision.”
Last June, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, sent a letter to Mr. Biden asking him to reinstate the 2014 policy as a first step toward fully renouncing the weapons everywhere and joining the Ottawa treaty.
“The Department of Defense should be directed to move expeditiously in fully implementing and institutionalizing the policy,” Mr. Leahy said in a statement emailed to reporters on Monday. “This is long overdue recognition that the grave humanitarian and political costs of using these weapons far exceed their limited military utility.”
The senator also urged the White House to take further steps to put the United States on a path to join treaties banning antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions. “Neither of these indiscriminate weapons, the horrific consequences of which we are seeing in Ukraine today, belong in the arsenals of civilized nations,” he said in the statement.
In a news briefing to reporters on Tuesday, Stanley L. Brown, a principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said that the United States currently had about three million antipersonnel mines in its inventory and would destroy any that were not needed to defend South Korea.
Biden administration officials took the opportunity to condemn Russia’s use of land mines in Ukraine, where the munitions “have caused extensive harm to civilians and civilian objects,” Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement on Tuesday.
In early April, evidence surfaced of Russia’s use of a new type of antipersonnel land mine in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv that launches an explosive warhead when it senses people nearby. In Bezruky, a town north of Kharkiv, The New York Times documented Russia’s use of anti-tank land mines that can explode if picked up by humans, which means they would be banned under international law.
The United States last used those types of mines on a large scale during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. In a single episode in 2002, U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan used a small mine configured as a hand grenade — called a pursuit deterrent munition — on a mission.
The U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines — Cluster Munition Coalition, an advocacy group that has pressured the White House to join the Ottawa treaty, welcomed news of the Biden administration’s policy change.
The move was “an important step,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday, reiterating its call for the president to “ban the use of antipersonnel land mines without geographic exceptions, including the Korean Peninsula.”
“The mines on the Korean Peninsula continue to cause ongoing harm and serve as a barrier to peace,” the group said.