The Value of the DMZ from an Ecological Perspective
Lee Wooshin (professor, Seoul National University)
In this second series on the DMZ, SPACE observes the ecological value of the DMZ. As a leading academic with three decades of working in the field of ecology and the DMZ, Lee Wooshin (professor, Seoul National University) suggests a future of the DMZ in which limited development may be pursued in place of deterministic environmental conservation. The DMZ to this day will be the first gateway towards a generation of the green détente, while simultaneously remaining the last known habitat for countless endangered species in Korea. editorial team
The Ecological Value of the DMZ
The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) was established through the signing of the Armistice Agreement on the 27th of July, 1953 at Panmunjom. Since then, the entrance and activity of civilians in the area has been strictly controlled for more than 60 years. Due to this prohibition of human activity, a natural ecosystem has been preserved, recording a high biodiversity. Before the Korean War, most of the area within the current DMZ was occupied by villages and agricultural areas, which have now been transformed into natural habitats like forests, grasslands and wetlands. Mammals and migratory birds, amphibians, reptiles, including various endangered species are now free to live in this human-free habitat. With the increase in attention by the international community for the protection of biodiversity, the DMZ’s ecological value has come under the spotlight. Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other international organizations have recommended the DMZ as an ecosystem conservation zone. Also, in 2009, Time placed the DMZ as one of the top 25 tourist attractions of Asia, featuring it under the title of ‘Step into Living Cold War History’. Thus the DMZ remains the subject of much international interest, not only due to its ecological value, but also due to its historical significance as one of the only remaining relics of separation due to the Cold War.
The Local Characteristics of the DMZ
as a Refuge of Biodiversity and Wildlife
Sixty-seven endangered animal and plant species, and 2,930 species of higher plants and vertebrates inhabit the DMZ and CCZ (Civilian Control Zone), an area only accessible by residents and special permit holders. As a refuge of the biodiversity of the Korean Peninsula, the DMZ and CCZ areas combined is home to 30% of all species of flora and fauna in the Korean Peninsula. The DMZ can be divided into the Western, Central and Eastern Regions geographically and a wide variety of vegetation and wild- life is present in each part.
The Western Region is mostly made up of coastal marshes and inland forests. The coastal area of the western DMZ contains vast tidal mudflats and marshes which support various invertebrates and fishes, and that supply foods to thousands of migratory birds. In summer, the breeding of Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) and Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes), which are designated as internationally endangered species as conservation flagships, heighten the profile of the coastal DMZ area. Uninhabited islets and profound wetlands provide nesting grounds and foraging areas for birds to feed their chicks; these two rare bird species rely on DMZ costal area as their last refuge.
Not only birds depend on western costal DMZ area for their living, but the Spotted Seal (Phoca vitulina) also inhabit at Baekryong-do Island, the westernmost part of DMZ. Jangdan peninsula, located at the mouth of Imjin River, is one of the largest wintering sites of Cinereous Vultures (Aegypius monachus), which more than 300 vultures have annually used as a supplementary feeding ground for more than 13 years, recorded since 2001.
The Central Region of the DMZ can be divided into two parts, mountainous Central-eastern and the hilly lowland Central-western area. Central-eastern mountainous area is full of mostly dense forests and has high conservation values, especially for rare large mammal species. The rocky terrain found across this area performs like a natural barrier, preventing large-scale forest fires. As a result of this, the Central-eastern DMZ area has remained as natural forests. Due to these geographical and habitat characteristics, the Central-eastern DMZ is important for many mammal species. Wild Boars (Sus scrofa), Water Deers, Roe Deers (Capreolus pygargus) and Amur Gorals (Naemorhedus goral) are abundant in this region, especially Amur Gorals, which are endangered in Korea: there are more than 300 individuals living in the Central-eastern DMZ, consisting of one-third of the nationwide population of c. 1000 gorals. However, gorals living in DMZ area are facing the loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding, due to its isolation by military fences.
The Central-eastern DMZ area is the main habitat of Amur Gorals, however, due to its isolation by military fences and roads, inbreeding takes the place of genetic diversity.
Musk Deers (Moschus moschiferus) are only found in the Central-eastern DMZ area, Hwacheon-gun and Yanggu-gun. Musk Deers are critically endangered in Korea, mainly due to illegal poaching. So far as to our knowledge, the habitat of the Central-eastern DMZ is significant to Musk Deer, which is elu- sive, and especially prone to human activity, and the region also has lush lichen growth, the major forage of Musk Deers particularly in winter. Central-western lowlands include Hantan River basin and the Cheorwon Plains, which is one of the largest inland plains of the country. The Cheorwon Plain is an internationally important wintering site for Red-crowned Cranes (Grus japonicus). About 1000 individual birds, out of approximately 2,750 of the world’s population, except c. 1500 birds that are resident in Japan, winter at the plain. Twenty percent of 10,000 world population of White-naped Cranes (Grus vipio) also visit here during winter. Cheorwon area has many artificial reservoirs like Ha-gal Reservoir, rolling hills and agricultural plains at CCZ, providing safe roosting sites and foraging fields for migrating cranes. Cranes are not the only visitors to the Cheorwon Plains. A variety of wintering waterfowls like White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) also spend their winter at Cheorwon, and the surrounding Togyo Reservoir in Cheorwon holds several hundreds of the Cinereous Vultures during winter. There is a supplementary feeding station that helps young vultures from Mongolia to survive through the winter and return back to their birthplace safely.
Cinereous Vultures at the Togyo Reservoir
The Eastern Region contains eastern coastal area of coastal dunes, marshes and lagoons, and some parts of CCZ including Unification Observatory area. Gamho area of Geumgang Mountain in the Eastern Region is a wetland of low basin. Diverse lives in this environment is supported by water flows, descended to the lowland Gamho area from the high mountain valleys. Gamho is the only lagoon in the DMZ, which meets fresh water and the East Sea. A lagoon has developed at the entrance to the bay, which was formed as the sea level rose during glacial and interglacial periods, and provided a space to avoid the strong winds and waves for migratory birds. Also, they play a role as a stopover and feeding area to replenish the nutrients necessary to migratory movement. Swans, geese and wintering other migratory birds in Korea use the eastern coast as their main travel paths to wintering areas. All three species of Swans are observed Hwajinpo Lake. Especially the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) population is the smallest among the swan species that live in the East Asia. So, measures for the preservation of the Mute Swan population must be introduced into this region. The Eastern coastal area is the wintering area of diving ducks and seagulls. This area not only plays the role of stop-over but also the role of wintering area. Nam River of Gumgang Mountain is the only river, flowing into the East Sea in the DMZ and salmon inhabit the area. The band of Hyangrobong Peak and Gunbong Mountain has been designated as Natural Monument 247, because of the pristine condition of the forest. Various mammals inhabit this eastern mountainous area, including Taebak Mountain such as Water Deer, Roe Deer, Racoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides), Leopard Cat (Felis bengalensis), Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and Amur goral. Since many of these species are at risk of being electrocuted by high-voltage lines, preventative measures must be prepared to prevent such cases in DMZ and surrounding area.
The Protection and Use of the DMZ Area
The DMZ area mainly consists of natural vegetation, rather than artificial patches such as rice paddies, fields, or reservoirs. A variety of environments including Mogoliand Oak (Quercus mongolica) and Pine (Pinus densiflora) forests of ridges, valleys growing Willow (Salix koreensis) and Aider (Alnus japonica), invasive plants growing everywhere, wetland surrounded by ragweeds known to be harmful to humans, reveal that this area is influenced by both humans and nature. In addition, natural forests coexist, and rare species of plants, insects, birds and mammals occupy the same habitat. Thus this ecological and topological value should be preserved through protection, use and appropriate management. Although unconditional preservation of an environment is valuable, the DMZ areas can have more significance by making people experience the wonderful environment and wildlife, and to personally sense its wild beauty. However because the domestic laws do not apply to the DMZ at present, it is difficult to designate areas as a Biosphere Reserves. On the other hand, the CCZ corresponds to a buffer zone of the Biosphere Reserve concept, which places emphasis on sustainable use by human activity. Therefore while it has high availability, its ecosystem is likely to be threatened by human intervention. Currently, habitats of endangered birds are destructed by development of roads and railway reconstruction projects in the northern border area of Kyeonggi and Kangwon Province including Ganghwa Island, mouth of Imjin River and the Cheorwon Plains. On the other hand, medium and large mammals such as the Wild Boars and Water Deers, which are gradually increasing in population, cause damage directly and indirectly to local people. In this situation, policy enforcement insisting only upon the value of ecological conservation does not typically gain good responses from the local residents. There are other big problems such as the difficulty of farmland-based investment caused by a limited construction of housing, the uncertainty of the maintenance of land ownership and the right of cultivation, as well as the income decline of local people. These issues can be solved by improving the quality of life of local residents, while maintaining and preserving the natural environment of the regions. In order to do this, the development of ecotourism could be a basic direction in the development of the CCZ near the DMZ. Since 1990, the international demand for ecotourism has increased about 20-24 percent every year, and domestic demand is also a growing trend with an annual growth rate of 20-30 percent. In case of the DMZ Tour, about 180,000 people joined in 2003, first year, and today, the total number of tourists have topped 5 million in 2013. As foreign tourists visiting DMZ gradually increases, DMZ tourism, which have values for both eco-tourism and security tourism, is expected to grow more than three times from now. In the current state of division, in which North and South Korea are in a state of conflict, it is historical irony that the DMZ and CCZ are the last bastion of wildlife. Therefore, the development of a DMZ eco-tourist site should be promoted as a symbol of environmental conservation based on natural wildlife habitat conservation and ecological planning. In the area near the DMZ, there are many available places for eco-tourist sites, including the Spotted Seal habitat of the western coast, the wintering habitat of cranes and vultures in Cheorwon, Musk Deer and Amur Goral habitat in Hwacheon and Yanggu, and the wintering areas of guillemots and Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) of the eastern shore.
The DMZ can be divided into the Western, Central and Eastern Regions geographically and a wide variety of vegetation and wildlife is present in each part.
By utilizing this area, it is possible to develop a Spotted Seal tour in the western region like foreign whale watching, and to create a seabird park to view the numerous seabirds sheltering there by the shore. The creation of a Crane eco-park in Cheorwon can promote the awareness of the people about the endangered cranes and it is also possible to make large-scale wildlife parks in Yanggu. In Gosung of the Eastern Region, a waterfowl park can be created by using various waterfowl including Mute Swans, which mostly winter along the Eastern Coast. Although the setup of ecological parks has the advantage that they rarely overlap with other zoos or similar natural reserves, the long distance between the DMZ and metropolitan life is a disadvantage. However, the DMZ area is more accessible than the past. For example, the highway between Chuncheon and Seoul was opened, and ‘DMZ Train’ ran from the Dorasan Station where Inter-Korea Transit Office is located in the CCZ, to Seoul Station. Also establishment of a wildlife ecology park can be a way to maximize ecological, symbolic value of DMZ, and an opportunity for DMZ to take off as world-class eco-tourism destinations.
In addition to eco-tourism sites, human involvement starting with ecology conservation in an area near the DMZ can form a new balanced relationship between nature and human. For the efficient use of the DMZ, land use, change of forests, physical environmental factors, biological factors and social factors should be analyzed and understood first through monitoring about importance places of the Central and Western regions of the DMZ. Also, this can be the key for biodiversity conservation to understand population dynamics such as birth and death, revealing the reason for the decrease or increase in the DMZ’s wildlife population. However, due to the characteristics of the DMZ, access to many parts including minefield areas, have limitations. Therefore, it is important to select the most efficient way from several methods such as remote sensing and unmanned observation. As access procedures have been simplified and opportunities of security and ecological education for many people have increased in the CCZ, the number of people visiting this area have increased. In this situation, activities of humans such as taking a picture may be another threat to wildlife. In order to minimize the direct and indirect damages caused by these actions, some place to watch birds and take pictures should be located in areas keeping a certain distance from wildlife. The education about the natural ecosystem should be promoted to change the consciousness of the general public, who visit the area.
Wildlife and Green Détente in DMZ
Détente means the ‘ease tension’ or ‘relaxation’ in French, and it is used as ‘State of tension that creates a relaxed atmosphere of reconciliation between the two opposing camps, or policy toward it’ in the dictionary. Green détente has recently emerged as an issue in the Korean Peninsula, as a solution for improving the strained Inter-Korean Relations through restoration of devastated forests in North Korea and create an atmosphere of reconciliation.
As already mentioned, wildlife habitats in the DMZ area are protected from any public activity, but the military fences have blocked the free movement of wildlife, especially large mammals, although these animals do not hold opposing ideologies. Endangered mammals like Musk Deers and Asian Black Bears in South Korea are encountering problems such as reduced genetic diversity and it is already a difficult situation to maintain a healthy population. Wildlife conservation was actively used in the ‘détente’ of the Post Cold War era, for example, China’s Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) was a symbol of peace and friendship in political diplomacy, as well as inducing public interest in wildlife conservation.
If the exchange of bear, goral, and musk deer populations to induce genetic diversity can be made, it will be a great contribution to the healthy survival of endangered species’ population, which can be said to pass beyond the Chinese ‘Panda diplomacy’. By aiding actual free-range wildlife, this exchange of wildlife populations will also play an important role in restoration of health forest ecosystems in both South and North Korea. The presence of large mammals such as Gorals, Musk Deers and Asian Black Bears is an essential element in a healthy Baekdudaegan Mountain ecosystem, by providing ecological roles of large mammals, such as seed dispersion and maintenance of ecological balance, which are the parts of the ultimate goal of forest restoration of Korean Peninsula, including North Korea. The DMZ has a great potential to move into the green détente, by supporting a mammal population’s exchange through a wildlife passage in the barrier fence, at a level that does not interfere with any military use. With North and South Koreas’ cooperative research of the West coasts’ Black-faced Spoonbill breeding colonies or founding Red-crowned Cranes wintering habitat at Anbyeon, North Korea can increase the reliable wintering habitat of this endangered bird species.
The DMZ is the last refuge of many endangered species and active research and policy-making for conservation are essentials to manage and protect this unique and healthy ecosystem, as well as taking the first step towards the green détente, to overcome the pain of the national division.
Images provided by the writer
Lee Wooshin gained a B.A in Forestry at Seoul National University and studied ecology of wildlife including birds since 1982. He earned a Ph.D. degree in Applied Zoology from Hokkaido University in 1990. He has successively fulfilled his role as a visiting professor in Oregon State University and a president of the Ornithological Society of Korea and the Restoration Ecological Society of Korea. He serves as a president of the Korea Society of Environmental Restoration Technology. He has been a professor in Forest Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Seoul National University since 1997, and has taught wildlife ecology and management.