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.

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.

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.

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.

Policy experts, environmentalists, and representatives of various governments gathered in South Korea late last month for a DMZ symposium. It preceded the 10th Ramsar Convention on Wetland Conservation, also hosted here this year. What emerged from these two events was the most promising show of support yet for the zone’s official preservation, says Kim Ke-chung, a native South Korean and director of Penn State’s Center for BioDiversity Research in University Park.

Breaking with their former pro-development stance regarding their CCZ territories, the provinces neighboring the DMZ now show serious interest in conservation. South Korea’s Ministry of Environment, as well as NGOs by the dozen are also in support. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s opening speech at Ramsar about the need to work jointly with North Korea to address environmental issues and make green growth a policy focus gave the clearest signal that a paradigm shift is under way.

After five decades of South Korea’s hyperspeed development, when environmental sustainability was an afterthought at best, the government has begun to tap the brakes on its growth-at-all-costs policy.

“For the first time, the Korean government has taken on DMZ conservation as a national agenda,” says Dr. Kim, a cofounder of the DMZ Forum and former professor of etymology at Penn State.

Despite the newfound support, conservationists say that some development must occur within this valuable real estate to bring greater economic opportunity to CCZ residents.

“Simply conserving the DMZ is not politically feasible,” says Park Eun-jin, a research fellow at Gyeonggi Research Institute in Suwon, South Korea, which is developing conservation plans. “We have to create economic benefits for communities or support won’t exist.”

One popular scenario goes like this: South Korea officially protects the CCZ and establishes it and the DMZ as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Educational and low-impact ecotourism sites spring up. Next, North Korea works with South Korea to take similar steps to protect its adjacent territory. Ultimately, the separate sites are connected as one contiguous nature park, with the DMZ at its center.

The Korea Tourism Development Insti­tute says some 1.2 million people visit the DMZ annually, including nearly 20 percent of all foreign visitors. While the area’s history draws much of the crowd, conservationists say interest, and tourist spending, will rise markedly if it were to also become a nature reserve.

Cooperation could hasten peace
There are myriad hurdles to creating any large nature park, but those facing the DMZ are unique. About 1 million land mines would need to be cleared, along with the remains of fallen soldiers and the detritus of war. Prewar land claims would need to be settled. These may raise complex legal and logistical issues.

The biggest obstacle, though, is North Korean strongman Kim Jung-il, whose erratic leadership can stall progress at a whim. Without North Korean cooperation, which has been less than exuberant, this ecological time capsule can only be partially protected. The North’s recent threat to cut off all overland crossings with South Korea next month shows the vulnerability of this bilateral diplomacy.

But there is hope, says Kim Hyun, senior program officer at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

“The North Koreans have been open to environmental conservation activities in the past, and are interested in getting more involved,” says Mr. Kim. He has worked with North Korean conservationists before and is now planning future IUCN environmental projects there.

Cooperation could foster peace. “The two Koreas coming together on this issue would incur tremendous goodwill and a surge of investment into both countries,” says author Weisman. “It could even help bring peace to the peninsula.”

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