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Korean demilitarized zone now a wildlife haven

Now there’s a move to keep it that way – and perhaps bring North and South Korea closer together.

By Tony AziosCorrespondent / November 21, 2008

A South Korean control tower along the heavily fortified 155-mile-long border with North Korea. In the decades since the cease-fire, nature has reclaimed the DMZ.

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Seoul, South Korea

Just 30 miles north of this pulsating metropolis is one of Northeast Asia’s last bastions of biodiversity. This stretch of wilderness is home to migrating flocks of rare cranes and some of the last wild bears and leopards in the region.

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But it’s not Shangri-La or a national park: It is the notorious Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas. Established after the 1953 Korean War cease-fire (the two nations are technically still at war), it is the most dangerous and heavily militarized border in the world.

The de facto wildlife preserve encompasses 390 square miles of diverse terrain virtually untouched by human development for 55 years. Now, as this accidental Eden faces major development pressures, a growing contingent is pushing for its establishment as a transboundary nature park – which could also be a step toward peace between the two Koreas.

“This strip of land contains almost every type of ecosystem you can imagine,” says Alan Weisman, author of “The World Without Us.” “It has inadvertently become one of the most important wildlife conservation sites in the world.”

Urban sprawl in the South is the biggest threat to DMZ wildlife. For decades, South Korea kept a 3- to 12-mile-wide buffer along the 155-mile length of the DMZ. The low-population Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) is an invasion precaution, but the easing of tensions in the last decade has led to major development there.

Paju, South Korea, is a hub of new job creation despite its being a mere three miles from the DMZ. Paju’s population has more than doubled, to 300,000-plus, since 2003. Major industrial development in North Korea, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex, has also been on the rise within a few miles of the DMZ. Some 30,000 workers produce low-end goods at the complex.

Increased industrial activity, as well as extensive deforestation on both sides of the border (up to two-thirds of North Korea) have meant worse air and water pollution within the sensitive zone. What has so fortuitously been saved could be recklessly lost, says Hall Healy, president of the DMZ Forum, a US-based NGO working to preserve the area.

“As resilient as these habitats have proven to be, they can’t sustain this level of development on a broader scale,” says Mr. Healy. “We have already lost vast swaths of the CCZ, and the DMZ may not be as amazing without them.”

While covert military activity does oc­­cur inside the DMZ, it’s officially off-limits, and anyone entering from either side risks being shot. Barbed-wire fences also prevent land animals from moving in and out of the 2.5-mile-wide zone. Many studies have taken place along both sides of its perimeter and through distant observation, but none within the DMZ itself.

All doubt about the zone’s ecological value is gone, says Mr. Weisman, whose book explores how nature might recover in the absence of humans, “If you want to know what the world would look like if humans suddenly vanished, the DMZ would be a good first place to look.”

Wildlife unique to the DMZ
And what would we see? Perhaps one-third of all red-crowned cranes, the world’s rarest, depend on the DMZ’s wetlands and nearby agricultural fields while migrating. The spotted seal, Chinese water deer, and lynx are just a few of its resident mammals. Up to 67 percent of all plant and animal species found in Korea live in and around the DMZ. Several species are found only there.

Scientists see it as a gene bank from which a decimated wildlife population could be rebuilt, with an eye toward eventual reintroduction. Without it, several East Asian species might become extinct.

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