Experts Discuss Future of Rare Wildlife in Korean DMZ

Korean DMZ
Wildlife has flourished in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which has been largely off-limits to human activities for more than 50 years.
Photo by Thierry via Flickr

At a June 4 conference in Seoul, South Korea, scientists and environmental experts discussed prospects for the biologically rich Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the Korean Peninsula. Geospatial studies of the 250-kilometer-long, 4-kilometer-wide “no-man’s land,” which has divided North and South Korea since 1953, confirm the continuing ecological importance of the region, said William Shore, secretary of the non-profit DMZ Forum, which co-sponsored the event. Participants discussed plans to conserve the zone while also noting that pressure to develop the landscape is intense.

Having remained relatively untouched for more than 50 years, the DMZ is a rich habitat for many rare and endangered species. With 97.4 percent forest and grassland cover, it boasts “abundant biodiversity, more than any other region in the nation,” according to Chea-hoan Lim, director of the Nature Policy Division of South Korea’s Ministry of Environment. Partial surveys of the area confirm the existence of some 2,700 species, including more than 1,100 plant species, 50 mammal species (including Asiatic Black Bears, leopards, lynx, and possibly tigers), more than 80 fish species, and hundreds of bird species. Roughly one tenth of the world’s cranes winter on the DMZ’s Cheorwon Plain, the DMZ Forum reports.

The Forum was formed in 1997 to publicize the environmental value and peacemaking potential of the DMZ. The group hopes to ultimately establish a “peace park” in the region, helping to transform the zone “from a symbol of war to a place of peace among humans and nature.” Forum members believe that ecotourism, rather than industrial development, may ultimately be the most profitable long-term use of the land.

But greater cooperation between the two Koreas in recent years has led to increased interest in developing the zone and bordering areas. Already, two railroad lines and two highways cut through the DMZ, and P.J. Puntenney of Environmental and Human Systems Management noted at the conference that this construction has “resulted in the degradation of the Sachon River ecosystem.” According to South Korea’s Lim, his country intends that after the two Koreas reunite, the unified government will maintain the DMZ as a natural reserve for two years while a “master plan” for biological resource conservation is developed.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.