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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Korean DMZ

Air Date: Week of

For nearly 50 years a two and a half mile wide demilitarized zone has separated the Korean peninsula, dividing north from south. This no man’s land has become a de facto nature sanctuary. Host Steve Curwood talks with Penn State University professor Ke Chung Kim about the DMZ and its prospects for permanent reserve status.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For nearly 50 years a demilitarized zone two-and-a-half miles wide has snaked across the Korean peninsula, separating the north from the south. A no man's land for all this time, it is now the last sanctuary for much of Korea's biological diversity. And with relations thawing between the north and south, conservationists say now is the time to protect the DMZ area permanently as a natural refuge. Joining me is Ke Chung Kim. He is Director of the Penn State Center for Biodiversity Research and chairman of the DMZ Forum. Professor Kim, would you set the scene for us. Describe what we would see if we were standing right in the middle of this corridor between the two Koreas.

KIM: Okay. First thing you would see is of course barbed wire fence. And looking over the fence, you will see a rich, green, thick forest in the eastern part. Toward the west you have a plain, you have thick grasslands, and then hills, hillbilly type of country. And so that you will see the rehabilitation of farming areas in the west, where they have cultivated over several thousand years, now is completely filled by the wildlife and the vegetation. That's what you would see.

CURWOOD: So it's really quite wild, then.

KIM: Yes, it is completely wild, mainly because for close to 50 years they have been no man's lands, which actually turned into sanctuaries and a refuge for many of the animal and plant species.

CURWOOD: So, what kind of plants and animals are in the demilitarized zone area, that can't be found now in the rest of Korea?

KIM: That is difficult to say, in a sense that Korean biodiversity is poorly known, particularly coming down to lower plants and invertebrate animals. Of course, you have to recognize that nobody getting into the DMZ inside, you know it's very difficult to say what's there. But so far, what they have recorded, nine, for example, rare species of mammals, either come from what's expected to be found there --

CURWOOD: What are those?

KIM: Which are, for example, black bear and musk deer are included. Sign of tigers or leopards, they cannot be 100 percent sure. And then also, they provide habitats for the world's most endangered birds, like the white-naped crane and the red-crowned cranes and so on. So it is a rich fauna and flora. They certainly can support conservation efforts peninsula-wide.

CURWOOD: How does the demilitarized zone compare with the rest of Korea?

KIM: North Korea, particularly immediately north of the DMZ, is prohibited, and I have not been to North Korea. I cannot say, other than the fact that they have very heavily deforested, and they have enormous flood and erosion problems every year. South Korea, for developing economic wealth for the last 30 years, literally exploited every acre of the land they got. As a result, they have a tremendous environmental problem in one end of the pollution. At the other end is the fragmentation and the destruction of the habitats. Loss of the native species is enormous.

CURWOOD: With rapprochement picking up pace now between North and South Korea, folks there must be looking pretty closely at the demilitarized zone. I imagine the developers see some pretty nice territory they can expand into, and environmental activists are saying hey, this would be great to have as a conservation zone, as a sanctuary. Looking back at the history of the last 50 years since the conflict in Korea, is it realistic to hope that North and South Korea can work on this to enhance environmental conservation?

KIM: I think that's a very good question. With a North and South summit completed and then a lot of activities are going on, my thought is that political environment will need to discuss something long-term, and politically neutral issues. That is environment, and the DMZ is not something like other transboundary issues. They don't have to create one which is already created. And it is owned by no one, other than, say, Korean people own it. So the issue could be relatively easy to deal with if North and South Korean government decided to pursue it.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you about the finances here. There's a lot of economic pressure to develop this area, obviously. What are the sort of financial resources necessary to encourage the South and North Korean governments to think in terms of conservation rather than construction and development?

KIM: Once an agreement is made to establish this, you know, because there's a lot of cost involved. For example, just simply removing the mine will be a tremendous effort in cost. But those costs, I think, can be gotten from international organizations, South Korean government, and so on. And this narrow [phonetic spelling] political decision, that's what they have to seek for at this point. You can't measure the economic value of exploiting the DMZ, which will not last too long. At the same time, that is very unique world jewel in terms of conservation. There is strong support in various sectors of the world community for it, so I'm very optimistic about the cost side of it, despite the difficulties I am at this point having convincing the political arena.

CURWOOD: Ke Chung Kim is Director of the Penn State Center for Biodiversity Research and chairman of the Korean DMZ Forum. Thank you, sir.

KIM: Thank you.



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