Korea DMZ considered for park

No man's land created by war is rich in wildlife

June 19, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

THE DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Korea - Kim Kwi Gon was traipsing through the demilitarized zone looking for a woodpecker when he stumbled across a rusting sign marking the cease-fire line that has divided North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War 47 years ago.

In a guard post on the other side stood North Korean soldiers armed with high-powered rifles and field glasses. Kim and his students had only nets, which they'd been swinging through the air to catch insects.

Why don't you step into North Korea, asked a student accompanying Kim on his unauthorized jaunt through the world's most fortified border. Two South Korean soldiers, who were surreptitiously guiding the group, looked the other way as Kim placed his foot into enemy territory. The North Korean soldiers watched closely but never opened fire.

"I think we were safe," said Kim, an impish 56-year-old professor of environmental planning at Seoul National University. "I think they knew we were scientists with a hypothesis."

In the late 1990s, Kim and his team performed an environmental survey of the DMZ, the 155-mile-long no man's land of minefields, razor wire and chain-link fence that separates the two Cold War enemies.

Last week, when the leaders of the divided peninsula reached an accord for reconciliation and eventual reunification, Kim's dream for the DMZ may have edged closer to reality. When peace comes to the Korean Peninsula, Kim and his colleagues want to turn the DMZ into a nature preserve where people on both sides of the border can meet and enjoy the flora and fauna.

In theory, it shouldn't be too hard. Cut off from human contact for nearly a half-century, the DMZ is a de facto natural park where many endangered plants and animals thrive.

Sacrificing natural beauty

In South Korea's rush toward modernization, it has sacrificed some of the natural beauty for which the Korean Peninsula was known as the "land of embroidered rivers and mountains." Today, 48 percent of reptiles and 60 percent of amphibians in South Korea are either extinct or endangered.

The peninsula's population of about 70 million could reach 100 million by 2025, putting more pressure on an area about the size of New York and Pennsylvania.

"They had deer, they had bear. They're all gone," said K. C. Kim, who runs a biodiversity research center at Pennsylvania State University and serves as chairman of DMZ Forum, a group of scientists devoted to preserving the area.

But what peace and prosperity failed to protect, a state of war has. The DMZ is home to 51 species of mammals, including officially protected creatures such as Korean water deer and lynx.

The red-crowned crane and white-naped crane, among the world's most endangered birds, spend their winters here among more than 20,000 migratory foul. The birds manage to avoid setting off land mines, some of which are so old that they may no longer be active.

In the past, guards have even reported seeing subspecies of Korean tigers and leopards, but there is no evidence the animals remain in the area.

Although turning the DMZ into a nature park would seem a natural, the plan must compete with other proposals for the strategic strip of land.

Many South Korean companies want to build in or around the DMZ to take advantage of cheap North Korean labor, lax environmental standards and better access to the market of 22 million on the other side of the border. One company is reported to have proposed a small amusement park.

Approval for changes

Any decision on the DMZ will require approval by the North Korean government, which controls half of the area. A South Korean official, who requested anonymity, said Seoul has forwarded the nature preserve proposal to the government in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, but has not received a response.

Turning a military border into a reserve - or "Peace Park" - to promote reconciliation is not uncommon. Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia share such areas, as do Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Establishing one along the DMZ could create an opportunity for cooperation between the Koreas.

"Working together with the North Koreans, we can build trust and eventually lead toward reunification," said K. C. Kim.

The last frontier of the Cold War is a strangely quiet and peaceful place in some respects.

Standing on an observation post overlooking a bridge leading into North Korea, visitors can hear the sounds of birds occasionally interrupted by the propaganda messages and music that the North and South blast at each other through loudspeakers. After last week's agreement, though, both countries have suspended the anachronistic broadcasts.

On the northern side, surrounded by foliage, stand two large signs in Korean. "Self Reliance Is A Way Of Life," reads one. "Follow The Path Of The Leading Star," reads the other, in a reference to Kim Il Sung, the late founding leader of North Korea.

Not far from the signs sits Gi Jong Dong, a North Korean village with four-story apartment houses and a 524-foot high flag pole. U.S. soldiers say the town, which they call "Propaganda Village," is empty.

"Most of the people we see go in there are to do maintenance" or turn on the lights, said Spc. Charles McNeely.

What seems strange to visitors and soldiers, though, is a wonderful world for the cranes and other birds who pad about the rice fields and pond nearby. And for the rare scientist who has a chance to see such creatures up close while they are still protected by razor wire, an extraordinary experience.

"In wintertime, I was so thrilled watching the cranes and ducks and geese," said Kim Kwi Gon. "To find a tiger, it would be nice."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.