Nature in the Korean Borderlands

How nature is thriving along one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world

Image credits: Johannes Barre

Korea stands out as one of the strangest geo-political situations of our times. Despite a common language and culture, the peninsula is split into two completely contrasting countries, divided only by a heavily fortified border. This bizarre situation emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the peninsula was arbitrarily divided into the American-backed Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). After the devastating Korean War (1950-53), the 250km-long demilitarised zone (DMZ) was all that separated the two adversaries. You only have to watch the news to see how volatile tensions between the two countries remain.

Despite the seemingly bleak situation, there are benefits to this standoff. Almost untouched by development, nature is thriving in the Korean borderlands.

The Korean peninsula is home to almost 100 mammal species. However, high human population densities leading to forest clearance and over-exploitation, have resulted in many species that were once abundant, becoming rare. The first casualties were many of the charismatic big cat species: the Siberian tiger, Leopard and Eurasian Lynx, which were historically found across the whole of the peninsula but are now locally extinct. The only exception to this is perhaps some of these species being found in the wilderness of the far North Eastern part of the DPRK (North Korea). The Brown bear is also completely gone, and the Asian Black bear hangs on in only remote mountainous regions. Many of these species are fairly incompatible with dense human settlement, which makes their return somewhat unlikely. Despite this, some of these species have been reported in the DMZ: even the tiger, endangered across most of its range, may exist in some pockets of the DMZ (although this is admittedly uncertain).  

After the Korean War, the lightly trafficked and heavily guarded DMZ began to be reclaimed by nature. Abandoned farmland transitioned to secondary forest, providing a safe retreat for many threatened species. One example is the Leopard Cat, a domestic cat-sized wild feline. Its population is now listed vulnerable in Korea, but a population now thrives in the demilitarised zone.

Map of the Korean DMZ (Image Credits: Rishabh Tatiraju – English captions added by the author of this article)

An unintentional wildlife reserve

There’s growing recognition in South Korea that the border is benefitting wildlife. The DMZ forum was founded as an organisation to support the protection and conservation of this vital region. They claim that the DMZ is home to over 1100 plant species, 50 mammal species and 80 fish species. The fact that the DMZ is home to numerous rivers and wetlands makes the habitat suitable for an abundance of birds and fish. One of the species which especially benefits from the DMZ is the Black faced spoonbill. Rated endangered by IUCN due to the destruction of mudflats across Asia, the spoonbill has few over-wintering habitats left available and has limited breeding sites.  However, the DMZ is said to be the bird’s biggest breeding site. This habitat may have contributed to the bird avoiding extinction in the 1980s, and their numbers steadily increasing since then, from 288 to around 3000 today.

The region also offers opportunities for the two opposing Korean states to cooperate on environmental issues and gain trust from working with each other. For example, a project focusing on the preservation and restoration of wintering sites for the endangered Red-Crowned crane on the Anbyon Plain, on both sides of the DMZ. This involved collaboration from scientists from both the North and South, and entailed providing incentives for local farmers to protect the cranes.

Environmental cooperation is especially important as North Korea faces severe environmental problems due to unsustainable agricultural practices and poor environmental regulations. For example, severe flooding in 1995 resulted in a severe famine: this was mainly caused by deforestation of mountain sides leading to increased hydrological runoff. Therefore, expertise from the more developed South will be vital in preventing future environmental and humanitarian problems.

Red-Crowned cranes (Image credits: S. Yoo)

A positive future for wildlife and people?

The 2018 and 2019 summits with US President Donald Trump initially appeared to be a way of deescalating tensions between the neighbours, but since the talks broke down in Hanoi, North Korea has inched closer to continued nuclear testing. Any war on the peninsula would be disastrous for the Korean people and would also likely destroy most of the wildlife that lives on the DMZ. While unification between the two countries could potentially benefit the people of Korea, development would likely engulf the border. However, both these scenarios are currently improbable, so it is likely that the DMZ will remain in its present form for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, in late 2019, thawing tensions led to joint Korean projects involving road construction and the removal of landmines. Whilst such projects seem to offer some positive light in the tensions on the Korean peninsula, there are fears this could negatively impact the wildlife of the area.

However, in a positive step forward, large areas on the Southern side of the border have gained UNESCO biosphere recognition (areas of exceptional biodiversity earmarked for conserved). Although this doesn’t entail legal obligations, it tends to be useful in encouraging local conservation.  Despite, the actual DMZ not being included in this designation, the South Korean government aims to foster cooperation between both Korean countries around the border region. For example, the South’s environment ministry has pledged to work with the DPRK to achieve protection for both sides of the DMZ. Whether this will actually occur waits to be seen.  

Ultimately, the future of the DMZ will depend on the state of relations between the two countries. Environmental conservation could provide a vital way for the two countries to improve relations whilst conserving one of the most vital wildlife habitats in the region.  Then again, it could easily fall prey to the bitter standoffs that have engulfed this region. Only time will tell what the future of the area holds.

About the Author: Tom Wainwright is a 3rd year Natural Sciences student at the University of York.

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