Breaking down the barriers

A peace park, before peace, on the Korean Peninsula?


SEOUL — A merican presidents, soccer stars, paying tourists and the occasional squad of Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders airlifted in to boost U.S. troop morale regularly bus through select checkpoints in the Korean demilitarized zone, but otherwise this 246-km-long, 4 km-wide strip of land is one desolate piece of real estate. Grim-faced South and North Korean soldiers toting machineguns prowl the barbed-wire perimeter, facing off across the foreboding no man’s land that has separated the Korean Peninsula for the past 50 years. “Demilitarized zone” seems a misnomer for what is actually the most heavily fortified place on Earth, surrounded by 1.5 million soldiers and countless land mines.

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Korea’s demilitarized zone is a refuge for countless species, including the globally threatened black-faced spoonbill, which now numbers only around 550 (above), and Saunders’ gull. PHOTOS COURTESY OF KOREAN FEDERATION FOR ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT
News photo

But now, momentum is building from within South Korea and abroad to turn this cordon of hell into a patch of heaven — a world-class, jointly managed nature sanctuary. Ironically, the continuing standoff between North and South Korea has already transformed the DMZ into a wildlife paradise, the last refuge for many species vanished or threatened with oblivion on the rest of the Peninsula.

“Korea created an accidental sanctuary from a tragedy,” says Seung Ho Lee, president of the U.S.-based nonprofit DMZ Forum, which organized an international conference in Seoul last spring on environmental cooperation in the zone. “It’s not just a national, but an international treasure.”

Proponents of the sanctuary plan argue that it would not only benefit wildlife, but also play a vital role in reversing the Peninsula’s profound environmental decline and help reduce tensions between the arch-enemies. A joint peace sanctuary, they say, would also be the most apt monument to the 4 million soldiers and civilians who perished in the Korean War.

The notion of neighboring countries jointly managing nature areas on their borders dates back to 1932, when Rotarians in Montana and Alberta successfully petitioned the American and Canadian governments to set up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Since then, similar cross-border nature schemes have been set up in many other parts of the world.

The United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), refined the idea of peace parks further in the early 1990s when it developed the concept of “transboundary biosphere reserves” (TBRs), conservation areas where ordinary citizens and governments cooperate not only to save species, but also to manage resources and promote sensible development. Such reserves include a protected core, used to house rare species and serve as a scientific control site, and buffer and transition zones where managed human activity and resource use is allowed.

To biologists, the idea of getting countries to join forces on conservation is simply common sense. Political boundaries are rarely, if ever, drawn along ecological borders, and protected birds and animals often migrate back and forth — as with, say, the red-crowned cranes that pass over the DMZ. Aboriginal cultures and native peoples often span both sides of national borders. In addition, with countries sharing a lake, river or other body of water, lax protections on one side can easily neutralize strict conservation controls on the other.

By setting up a TBR, countries have a shot at developing a more sensible strategy for tracking and protecting rare species. They can also double their clout when it comes to applying for research grants, and pool their scientific expertise.

But the real beauty of TBRs lies in their potential to go beyond technical scientific cooperation and provide a common ground for interaction between ordinary citizens of bordering nations. By bringing together local people on both sides of the border, via sustainable farming or fishing projects, joint disaster prevention, or ecotourism and environmental education, the transboundary reserve offers an alternative avenue for reducing mutual ignorance and distrust, and hence minimizes the chance for conflict and tensions along borders.

News photoKe Chung Kim is the founder and inspiration for DMZ Forum, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that supports the conversation of Korea’s demilitarized zone into a peace park.

As awareness of the benefits a Korean TBR could bring to the Peninsula increases, plans for a peace park are gaining official support. South Korea recently announced that it will apply to UNESCO to have part of the DMZ declared a cross-border protected nature zone. It would be the first step toward joining forces with its archrival on joint conservation.

“We see no reason for North Korea to object” to the plan, Shim Soo Kyong, of South Korea’s UNESCO office, told the Korea Herald in May. Pyongyang at the last minute pulled its representative from the Seoul symposium, but in the past has hinted it would support a transboundary preserve. South Korea’s Environment Ministry is drawing up plans for a TBR that would convert the DMZ into an idyll of sustainable land use, ecotourism and sealed habitats for rare plants and animals.

Such news is bird song to the ears of one of the most vocal and tireless campaigners for a DMZ sanctuary — Korean-American scholar and activist Ke Chung Kim, who founded the DMZ Forum several years ago to promote a bilateral sanctuary between the two Koreas. A native of Seoul who emigrated to the United States 40 years ago and now teaches entomology at Pennsylvania State University, Kim has never been one to stick to his butterflies and formaldehyde. Influenced by the philosophy of U.S. biologist Rachel Carson, who alerted the world to the dangers of pesticide, Kim watched with horror as his native land — taking its cues from neighboring Japan — embarked on a reckless orgy of industrialization and public works, inevitably unleashing its own “silent spring.” Taking a stroll through a farming area on one of his frequent visits home, in the 1960s, “I suddenly realized there was dead silence.” The chorus of frogs he remembered from his youth had been stilled by pesticides, pollution and overdevelopment.

Once lauded in Korean literature as a breathtaking “land of embroidered rivers and mountains,” the southern half of the Korean Peninsula today is breathtakingly filthy, more aptly named the “land of industrial estates and urban sprawl.” “This country is superficially clean, but every river is polluted,” says Kim. “There are a lot of mutant fishes.” While South Korea has yet to suffer an epic industrial tragedy on the scale of Japan’s Minamata or Yokkaichi pollution cases, Kim argues that degradation on the Korean Peninsula is so severe “it’s a disaster waiting to happen — and the politicians don’t want to talk about it.”

He ticks off a list of grim facts: Widespread hazardous-waste contamination; massive reclamation of coastlines and salt marshes; waste-clogged rivers and waterways; smog and severe acid rain — and few signs the administration is ready to do anything about it. Indeed, a biodiversity report coauthored by Kim in 2000 reckoned that more than one-fifth of South Korea’s land species are on or over the brink of extinction, including 10 percent of its birds, 23 percent of freshwater fishes, a third of its mammals, almost half of all reptiles and two-thirds of amphibians. The undeveloped North, meanwhile, has suffered rampant deforestation, with consequent soil erosion and flooding.

Compare this gloomy portrait to the wildlife-abundant DMZ, says Kim, and the conclusion is obvious: The DMZ is the “crown jewel” of the Peninsula, the key to restoring degraded environments across the country.

To restore or maintain a particular ecosystem, scientists need a “control site,” or a portrait of the ecosystem’s original topography and catalog of species. The DMZ, which traverses the Peninsula from its eastern highlands of Mongolian oak and maple forest, through the central mixed forests and western stands of Japanese red pine, and even includes offshore islands and marine areas, is a perfect cross section of local geography, geology and climate. Its restricted status means that Kim and his associates can only make educated guesses at exactly what treasures it harbors. But studies of the southern buffer area flanking the barbed-wire fences, the semirestricted Civilian Control Zone, suggest that it is a priceless repository for rare flora and fauna, and therefore offers scientists the chance to reintroduce species to the rest of the country.

A six-year study sponsored by the South Korean government, for example, recorded over 1,000 plant species and 600 species of animals in the buffer area, including over a third of the Peninsula’s plants, two-thirds of its fishes and amphibians, and about half of Korean reptiles. Most of Korea’s birds and mammals — including the endangered Chinese egret, red-crowned crane, musk deer and black bear — are also known to exist in the lush DMZ ecosystem.

“By accident, the DMZ has become one of the world’s most important areas for birds,” acknowledged George Archibald, a leading ornithologist and founder of the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation. Archibald, who has monitored the DMZ’s buffer zones since 1970, says the area’s islands, mud flats, river valleys and forests are critical, as one of the few resting areas available on the migration route between Siberia and Australia. The area, he said, is the most important breeding area for the globally threatened black-faced spoonbill, a white-plumed cousin of the ibis numbering about 900 on the fertile estuary of the Imjin River. White-naped cranes en route to Japan, sometimes 1,000 at a time, also stop in the DMZ, as do swans, ducks and the black vulture.

The fate of such species may rest on the way in which the DMZ is ultimately developed. Instead of a trade center, housing development or soccer stadium — among the many dream projects of South Korean industrialists for the DMZ — conservationists talk of setting up a patchwork of areas within the 907-sq. km DMZ and adjacent 1,369-sq. km buffer zones, ranging from sustainable farming and fishing areas and ecotourism, to closed sanctuaries accessible only to scientists and researchers. Two railways and five highways are already planned or under construction to transverse the DMZ; conservationists are calling for rigorous environmental impact studies well before bulldozers are permitted to raze portions of the wilderness.

Endrunning business interests to establish transboundary nature reserves is a tricky proposition even among friendly neighbors; DMZ conservationists face additional obstacles. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North through economic cooperation would be disastrous for the DMZ ecosystem, speakers at the spring Seoul symposium pointed out. North Korea is as eager to gain foreign development assistance as South Korean “chaebol” are to expand northward. “South Korea[n business] is ready to move into North Korea,” Ke Chung Kim said ruefully. “They’ll destroy it faster than they have here.” For many Koreans the DMZ is a hated symbol of family separation, and there is considerable support for abolishing it altogether, when and if reunification becomes a reality.

But with South Korea finally enjoying stable growth and prosperity, Ke Chung Kim says the climate is improving for DMZ preservation.

“The DMZ is still thought of in terms of war,” Ke Chung Kim said recently in Seoul. “But now, it could be a bridge and a vehicle for peace and security.”