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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

January-February 2010

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Toward Environmental Sustainability and Reduced Tensions on the Korean Peninsula

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas currently serves as a most valuable, albeit incidental, nature reserve. The purpose of this article is to make it clear—especially to relevant academics, diplomats, and civil servants—that a major fraction of the DMZ must be protected formally for such a purpose. For that to happen, it would certainly be best accomplished before such time that a treaty is adopted that officially ends the Korean War of 1950–1953, thereby abolishing the DMZ and making most of that land immediately available for development.

Red-crowned Cranes (Grus japonensis), an IUCN Red List endangered species depending to a significant extent on the availability of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) for its long-term survival.

Caption: Red-crowned Cranes (Grus japonensis), an IUCN Red List endangered species depending to a significant extent on the availability of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) for its long-term survival.

It is well established that for a region such as the Korean peninsula to offer a home conducive to the long-term well-being both for its human inhabitants (with their crops and livestock) and to as many as possible of the remaining native plants and animals, would require a combination of (a) the gentle use of all those lands long sequestered for agriculture, industry, and so forth, and (b) the setting aside of some modest fraction as protected areas for the native biota. I shall not here dwell upon the overall impact on the land being exerted by the inhabitants of the two Koreas except to note that much of the industrialization in both North and South has yet to have adequate pollution controls, and much forest land unsuited for agriculture has been cleared for farming to satisfy the needs of the peninsula.1 Currently only about 3 percent of the Korean peninsula is protected for nature'a bit less in the North (2.6 percent), and a bit more in the South (3.6 percent).2 These values are substantially below the necessary minimum for any region's long-term environmental and associated human health.

The present paucity of protected habitats on the Korean peninsula has deprived the peoples of the region of the many subtle continuing benefits derived from adequate expanses of natural areas, the so-called ecosystem services. Among those often overlooked benefits of natural areas are purification of water and air, amelioration of local climate, limiting of erosion, protection of watersheds, the availability of wild medicinal plants, tranquility and inspiration, and opportunities both for scientific research and ecotourism. This substantial Korean paucity of bio-sanctuaries has also inexorably led to at least some extinctions and to the likelihood that others will follow suit. Indeed, listed among the wildlife currently known to be in danger of extinction on the Korean peninsula (i.e., down through “Vulnerable”), primarily for lack of adequate habitat, are at least 38 diverse species: 29 birds, six mammals, one salamander, and one dragonfly.3

Finding new areas to set aside as nature reserves is a formidable challenge in a region where so much of the land is already being utilized—if not overutilized—for all of the immediately necessary human demands. Here is where the DMZ, established at the end of the war to provide a security buffer between the two Koreas, comes into its own.4 This east–west green belt across the middle of the Korean peninsula has now been protected since the end of the Korean War, but only on a de facto basis. The DMZ is 4 kilometers wide and about 248 kilometers long, thus covering about 992 square kilometers.2

Although the DMZ represents only 0.5 percent of the Korean peninsula, and is thus no great loss to the region's overall future development, the DMZ should become the centerpiece of any effort to work toward environmental sustainability for the region. Its ecological importance derives in significant part from traversing a representative sample of most of the peninsula's diverse ecosystems'lowland and upland, wetland and mountain, woodland and grassland'most of them now largely unmolested by human action for over half a century. This has permitted those diverse ecosystems to be well on their way to recovering naturally from their extraordinarily serious wartime and other prior human disruptions.

Thus, the DMZ is quickly becoming an unparalleled living museum and repository for much of the region's flora and fauna. Indeed, perhaps one-third of the peninsula's species of plants and up to one-half of its mammals and birds, can be found living in the DMZ during all or part of the year.5 The dozens of freshwater fish species inhabiting the waters of the DMZ are crucial to restoration efforts elsewhere on the peninsula.6 Since the DMZ serves as part of the annual migratory route of various northeast Asian birds, including cranes, egrets, spoonbills, storks, and ibises, it now contributes additionally to the long-term well-being of bird life in nearby China, Russia, and even Japan.7 And by way of one telling example, of those 29 bird species on the peninsula known to be in danger of extinction, at least 15 are found in the DMZ.8

Up to now, I have dwelled on the very serious environmental (and derivative social) problems faced by the two Koreas, suggesting that it is to everyone's clear benefit, both North and South, to ameliorate them. I have even tried to implicitly plant the notion that there exists a moral obligation to past, present, and future generations to do so. I thus wish to close by suggesting that something as benign, apolitical, beneficial, and uplifting to all on both sides of the Military Demarcation Line as the protection in perpetuity of substantial portions of the DMZ should be pursued irrespective of the seemingly endless waxing and waning of North South political tensions and other stumbling blocks to this vision.

And who knows? Cooperation between North and South Korea in this area of so-called low politics might well serve as a confidence-building measure that will ultimately contribute to the easing of cross-border confrontations of the so-called high-politics currently at such a low ebb there (an approach still widely overlooked even in exhaustive relevant surveys and analyses).9 Such cooperation could additionally serve as a model for other troublesome border regions in the world.10

South Korean sentry near the DMZ.

Caption: South Korean sentry near the DMZ.

1. For North Korea, see: UNEP and UNDP, State of the Environment: DPR Korea (Bangkok: United Nations Environment Programme, 2003): 1–65.


2. WRI, Earth Trends: Environmental Information: Biodiversity and Protected Areas (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2009), http://earthtrends.wri.org (accessed 4 July 2009).


3. IUCN, The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Gland, Switzerland: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 2009), http://www.iucnredlist.org (accessed 4 July 2009).


4. G. W. Archibald, “Cranes over Panmunjom: How Korea's Demilitarized Zone Became a Lush Wildlife Sanctuary,” International Wildlife 5, no. 5 (1975): 18–21; L. M. Brady, “Life in the DMZ: Turning a Diplomatic Failure into an Environmental Success,” Diplomatic History 32, no. 4 (2008): 585 611.; H. Healy, “Korean Demilitarized Zone: Peace and Nature Park,” International Journal on World Peace 24, no. 4 (2007): 61–83; M.-H. Jang, J.-D. Yoon, J.-H. Shin, and G.-J. Joo, “Status of Freshwater Fish Around the Korean Demilitarized Zone and Its Implications for Conservation,” Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 18, no. 6 (2008): 819–828; K. H. John, Y. C. Youn, and J. W. Shin, “Resolving Conflicting Ecological and Economic Interests in the Korean DMZ: A Valuation Based Approach,” Ecological Economics 46, no. 1 (2003): 173–179; K. C. Kim, “Preserving Korea's Demilitarized Corridor for Conservation: A Green Approach to Conflict Resolution,” in S. H. Ali, ed., Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007): 239–259 and 343–377; K.-G. Kim, A Study on the Feasibility as Well as an Operational Strategy to Develop DMZ Transboundary Biosphere Reserve Between DPR Korea and Republic of Korea (Jakarta: UNESCO, 2001): 1–33; W. B. Shore, “Sanctuary for Nature and the Dead: Preserving the Korean Demilitarized Zone,” World Watch 17, no. 6 (2004): 32–35. A. H. Westing, “A Korean DMZ Park for Peace and Nature: Towards a Code of Conduct,” in C.-H. Kim, ed., The Korean DMZ: Reverting Beyond Division (Seoul: Sowha Publishing Company, 2001): 157–191.


5. K.-G. Kim and D.-G. Cho, “Status and Ecological Resource Value of the Republic of Korea's De-militarized Zone,” Landscape and Ecological Engineering 1, no.1 (2005): 3–15.


6. See Jang et al., note 4.


7. H. Higuchi and J. Minton, “The Importance of the Korean DMZ to Threatened Crane Species in Northeast Asia,” Global Environmental Research 4, no. 2 (2000): 123–132.


8. IUCN, note 3. Kim and Cho, note 5.


9. E.g., see: Z. Lachowski et al., Tools for Building Confidence on the Korean Peninsula (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and Zurich: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Center for Security Studies, 2007): 1–95.


10. A. H. Westing, “Establishment and Management of Transfrontier Reserves for Conflict Prevention and Confidence Building,” Environmental Conservation 25, no. 2 (1998): 91–94.


ARTHUR H. WESTING is a forest ecologist and environmental consultant. He serves on the Board of the DMZ Forum and is a member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

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