Typically, barbed wire fences and heavily armed perimeters are not what come to mind when one thinks about a wildlife refuge. However, in the case of the 390 square miles of diverse and virtually untouched terrain that encompasses Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), that is precisely what has inadvertently been created. Located 30 miles north of the bustling city of Seoul, the heavily militarized stretch of land that separates North Korea from South Korea has become a bastion for biodiversity in a country where environmental sustainability has typically been little more than an afterthought.
“This strip of land contains almost every type of ecosystem you can imagine. It has inadvertently become one of the most important wildlife conservation sites in the world,” claims “The World Without Us” author Alan Weisman. The DMZ’s terrain contains everything from mountains and prairies to swamps, lakes and tidal marshes, making it extremely biologically diverse and creating the perfect home for many unique species of plants and animals.
Endangered red-crowned and white-nape cranes, spotted seals, Chinese water deer, bears, leopards and lynx all thrive in the DMZ. In fact, 67 percent of Korea’s plant and animal species call the Demilitarized Zone their home, including several species that can be found there exclusively. The area is home to approximately 2,900 plant species as well as 70 different types of mammals and 320 bird species. In all likelihood several East Asian species would have already become extinct already were it not for this refuge from human development.
The Demilitarized Zone was formed by the 1953 armistice between North and South Korea. Once littered with corpses, in the decades that followed the ceasefire only occasional covert operations were carried out within the DMZ. The uninhabited border region between the two countries has become a sort of insight into what would happen were man to suddenly disappear from the Earth.
Unfortunately as hostilities have decreased between North and South Korea, man has begun to once again encroach upon the untouched wilderness. The 3- to 12- mile-wide buffer zone along the length of the DMZ, called the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), has begun to see increasing urban sprawl and major development. In the city of Paju, located just three miles from the South Korean side of the DMZ, population has more than doubled within 5 years to reach over 300,000. On the North Korea side, industrial complexes like the Kaesong Industrial Complex are being created within a few mile radius of the Demilitarized Zone. Deforestation, air and water pollution already threaten the sensitive DMZ.
“What has fortuitously been saved could be recklessly lost. As resilient as these habitats have proven to be, they can’t sustain this level of development on a broad scale. We have already lost vast swatch of the CCZ, and the DMZ might not be as amazing without them, states Hall Healy, president of the DMZ Forum.
The increased threat of human sprawl has prompted many, including CNN founder Ted Turner, to support the idea of creating a legitimate within the DMZ. In 2005 Ted Turner made a two-day trip to North Korea to advocate building a wildlife conservation park. Ted promised to make an unspecified financial contribution to a nature preserve, were it to be created within the region. There are, however, roadblocks that must first be worked through.
In order to create viable economic opportunities for residents living in the CCZ, some development must occur on the real estate. One popular idea involves protecting the CCZ and DMZ as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site. They could then employ low-impact ecotourism and educational sites within the CCZ, which would encourage tourism to the region while protecting it from industrialization and urban sprawl. 1.2 million people already visit the DMZ area annually, mostly for historic purposes. Creating a wildlife sanctuary here could increase this number significantly; generating much needed economic stimulus within both North and South Korea.