Korea’s green ribbon of hope: history, ecology, and activism in the DMZ

The demilitarised zone between North and South Korea is home to thousands of species extinct elsewhere on the peninsula.

South Korean soldiers
The demilitarised zone between North and South Korea is home to thousands of endangered species [GALLO/GETTY]

A thin green ribbon threads its way across the Korean Peninsula. Viewed from space, via composite satellite images, the winding swath clearly demarcates the political boundary between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Its visual impact is especially strong in the west, where it separates the gray, concrete sprawl of Seoul from the brown, deforested wastes south of Kaesong. In the east, it merges with the greener landscapes of the Taebaek Mountain Range, home to several of Korea’s many national parks, and all but disappears.

Seen from the ground, the narrow verdant band is even more evident. It manifests as an impenetrable barrier of overgrown vegetation enclosed by multiple layers of fences topped by menacing concertina wire and dotted with observation posts manned by heavily armed soldiers. That such a place so steeped in violence and death still teems with life seems unimaginable.

And yet, the Demilitarised Zone, or DMZ, is home to thousands of species that are extinct or endangered elsewhere on the peninsula. It is the last haven for many of these plants and animals and has become the center of attention for those intent on preserving Korea’s rich ecological heritage.

Once known as the keum-su-gang-san, or “land of embroidered rivers and mountains”, the Korean Peninsula has experienced almost continual conflict for over 100 years, resulting in a severely degraded natural environment. International competition for control over the peninsula’s resources left Korea in a precarious position at the start of the 20th century. Japanese occupation between 1905 and 1945 brought with it radically increased exploitation of mineral and other resources, resulting in massive deforestation, pollution, and general environmental decline. Since at least the 1940s, deforestation for fuel wood and clearing for agricultural land has caused significant erosion of the area’s mountains and hills and has contributed to the siltation of its rivers, streams, and lakes.

Widespread devastation

The Korean War caused widespread environmental devastation on the peninsula [GALLO/GETTY]

The 1950-1953 war ranged across the entire peninsula, subjecting it to widespread devastation that destroyed cities, roads, forests, and even mountains. Rapid economic development in the 1960s and 1970s, spurred by ideological competition between the two Koreas, has further undermined the peninsula’s ecological health. Air, water, and soil pollution caused by unchecked industrialisation has left Koreans and their environment sick. The relative health of the DMZ stands in stark contrast to the failing ecosystems in both North and South Korea.

Created in 1953 during tense armistice negotiations, Korea’s DMZ is at once one of the most dangerous places on earth and one of the safest. For humans, the millions of soldiers arrayed along its edges pose an imminent threat, if one were foolish enough to test their reflexes by encroaching upon the zone without permission. If the soldiers’ guns don’t deter, the thousands of land mines strewn across the zone represent a hidden but no less lethal line of defense against human incursion.

But the same forces that prevent Homo sapiens from moving within the nearly 400 square miles of the DMZ encourage other species to thrive within its meandering borders. Manchurian or red-crowned cranes and white-naped cranes are among the DMZ’s most famous and visible denizens. Nearly 100 species of fish, perhaps 45 types of amphibians and reptiles, and over 1,000 different insect species are also supposed to exist in the protected zone. Scientists estimate that over 1,600 types of vascular plants and more than 300 species of mushrooms, fungi, and lichen are thriving in the DMZ. Mammals such as the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer, and spotted seal inhabit the DMZ’s land and marine ecosystems. There are even reports of tigers, extinct on the peninsula since before Japanese occupation, roaming the DMZ’s mountains.

Much of the biodiversity in the DMZ is speculative, extrapolated from spotty scientific studies conducted in the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) that forms an additional protective barrier along the DMZ’s southern edge. Approximate though these studies are, the DMZ’s ecological promise is great enough to spur many people to action.

Boiling point

The simmering tensions on the Korean Peninsula over the past 60 years have at times reached a boiling point, putting the fate of the DMZ and its biodiversity into question. The 1966–1969 “shadow war” in the DMZ, the discovery in 1974 of several military incursion tunnels running under the DMZ from North Korea, the 1976 “Ax Murder Incident”, and the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 are but several examples of the ways in which the Korean War continues to be fought. Because of these and other tensions (including the DPRK’s nuclear program), efforts to protect the DMZ’s ecological and cultural offerings have become imperative.

Because of the unique character of the DMZ, any conservation efforts must carefully navigate the symbolic land mines associated with the area’s history and future. One potential development on the minds of many Koreans, whether they live on the peninsula or elsewhere, is the return of a single Korean nation. Reunification is a particularly tricky issue, not only because of political questions (such as under which government a unified Korea would operate), but also because of the probable ecological costs such change would entail. A unified Korea would obviate the need for the DMZ and would potentially imperil the continued existence of the various ecosystems the dividing line presently supports. Because the DMZ is both a tangible and visible fact of Korea’s conflicted and tragic past, the desire to eliminate its footprint might be an understandable consequence of reunification, even without considering the humanitarian and economic arguments for putting the acreage into production in the eventuality of a single Korea.

However, many individuals both on and outside of the peninsula hope to preempt the destruction of the DMZ’s ecological treasury, should Korea reunify, by establishing a permanently protected area commensurate with the current DMZ boundaries. Several solutions already proffered are the creation of a series of dedicated conservation areas in and along the DMZ, the development of ecotourism and educational zones, and attaining World Heritage Site designation through UNESCO. Each of these plans has its proponents and is currently being pursued by various organizations.

Two projects have already proven highly successful: the establishment of crane conservation areas in the DMZ along the Han River estuary and in the Anbyon Plain north of the DMZ near Wonsan, DPRK. The former zone spans the western edge of the DMZ south to Seoul and serves as a safe winter resting area for over 1,000 white-naped cranes. The South Korean government designated the area as a national monument in 1976, after scientific studies by George Archibald of the International Crane Foundation (Baraboo, Wisconsin) and Kim Hon Kyu of Ehwa Women’s University (Seoul) determined the region’s importance to the continued survival of the species.

The second conservation area, located in the Anbyon Plain, supplements the migratory wintering grounds for both white-naped and red-crowned cranes inside the DMZ in the Choelwon Basin and along the peninsula’s western coast. Since its inception in the 1990s, the Anbyon Plain project has been an international, cooperative effort. Chong Jong Ryol of Korea University in Tokyo, Pak U Il of the State Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, Hito Higuchi of Tokyo University, and Archibald developed the project in order to protect the species’s vital winter stopover grounds. By working in partnership with local farmers to restore riparian, grassland, and forest habitats, the project demonstrates that cranes and humans can thrive in cooperation. Thus far, the project has garnered approval from the North Korean government and has set the stage for scientists and farmers to create both ecologically and economically sustainable agricultural practices that benefit both cranes and people.

Ecotourism and eco-education have also found purchase recently among those interested in preserving the DMZ’s environmental heritage. South Korea’s official tourism site offers the opportunity to visit an area south of the DMZ that it calls the Peace-Life Zone. The guidebook for the tour, The Road to Peace and Life: 545km, incorporates extensive photographs highlighting the natural beauty of the region and advertises the DMZ as “a peaceful place” that “marks the last untouched cold war border in the world today”. The guide promotes the 545-kilometer-long course as “the road to world peace and wonder of nature”.

Marketing and propaganda aside, the tour is evidence of the Republic of Korea’s willingness to promote and support efforts to preserve the area’s ecological sustainability. Similarly, in early 2010, the Catholic University of Korea and SungKongHoe University developed a joint college course for its students called Life and Peace of the DMZ. The course examined the history of the Korean War, media representations of the DMZ, and the sociology and ecology of the area. The intent of the course was to create interest in what one professor called “DMZ-ology” – the holistic study of the DMZ and its ecological and cultural importance for the entire peninsula.

Preserving the DMZ

Perhaps the most comprehensive plans involve efforts to permanently set aside the DMZ and adjacent areas as an ecological preserve and cultural site. Several international and Korean nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are involved in disseminating information, gathering public support, and working with government agencies on both sides of the divide to achieve official recognition of the DMZ’s importance – both environmentally and historically – and subsequent protection of the area as an international transboundary peace park.

Among the leading associations, and one of the first organised for the purpose, is the DMZ Forum, a nonprofit, internationally recognised NGO. Founded in 1997 by K C Kim, now director emeritus of Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Biodiversity Research, and Seung-ho Lee, the DMZ Forum’s mission is “to support conservation of the unique biological and cultural resources of Korea’s Demilitarised Zone, transforming it from a symbol of war and separation to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature”. The DMZ Forum holds annual conferences to educate the public about the history and ecological importance of the DMZ and to promote its goal of permanent conservation of the area’s natural and cultural resources.

Currently, the DMZ Forum is partnering with a number of foundations and organizations to support reforestation efforts in North Korea led by Kim Ho-Jin, dean of the College of Forestry at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Kim has been engaged in reforestation efforts throughout North Korea, with particular attention to the nation’s mountainous areas, which are especially vulnerable to erosion. Though his recent plantings have been in the DPRK’s northeastern sector, Kim hopes to begin planting saplings in the Panmunjom area and elsewhere along the DMZ in order to further protect the ecosystems there from erosion and biodiversity loss.

The DMZ Forum’s primary and long-term goal, however, is to gain approval from both the ROK and the DPRK to nominate the entire DMZ and its adjacent Military Control (DPRK) and Civilian Control (ROK) Zones as a cultural and natural World Heritage Site. This transboundary park would incorporate marine ecosystems in the West (Yellow) Sea, the Han River estuary and its lowland plains, the high mountains of the Taebaek Mountain Range, and the East Sea (Sea of Japan) tidal areas, providing a nearly comprehensive representation of the peninsula’s ecological systems. The proposed park would also include two areas that border the DMZ and that are already designated as national parks by their respective governments, Seoraksan National Park in South Korea and Mount Kumgang National Park in North Korea. Combined, the area would incorporate over 400 square miles of protected ecosystems.

If the DMZ has served to remind the Korean people and the world of the lasting legacy of ideological conflict and military confrontation, then it has also become a symbol for a new generation of people wanting to preserve a reinvigorated Korean ecology. The war may have been a human tragedy, but out of terrible loss may come the prospect for peace, environmental health, and mutual cooperation on behalf of humans and nature. Korea’s political past and its environmental future are inextricably linked. The DMZ has become a green ribbon of hope, representing not only Korea’s ecological and cultural past but its promise for a healthy, peaceful future.

A version of this article was first published on the Solutions Journal.

Lisa M. Brady is associate professor of history at Boise State University. Her first book War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War will be published in April 2012 by University of Georgia Press.