The Korean demilitarized zone has an ecological lesson to teach us

If one good thing came out of the Korean War, it’s the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea that has remained largely untouched by humans since 1953, thus becoming an ecological example of how leaving nature alone can help save it.

The DMZ was a hotly contested stretch of territory during the war. Troops on both sides died there and more than 2 million land mines still pose a threat today.

Most of us think of the DMZ as a wasteland, but it’s actually filled with lush forest and grasslands that support an entire ecosystem that has not been violated by humans for decades. It’s an unintended experiment in conservation that deserves worldwide attention.

According to the South Korean Ministry of Environment:

The DMZ provides a unique environment that wildlife can inhabit without the influence of various development projects and other human activity, as public access to the DMZ is restricted. Accordingly, the DMZ is known to be inhabited by 5,097 species, including about 106 protected species. The habitats of the globally rare red-crowned crane and black-faced spoonbill are scattered throughout the DMZ.

The protection for 106 vulnerable species is especially critical since the United Nations recently warned that one million species are at risk of extinction because of humans.

It took decades, but the DMZ has become a notable example of how nature can repair itself if humans would just leave it be, and it’s why the region has ecological value today.

“The ecological value of the Korean DMZ has been documented for several decades as many scientists in Korea and from around the world have researched the region,” DMZ Forum president Seung-ho Lee told The Guardian. “But it has been mostly speculation based on the research in the CCZ [civilian control zone] because of an estimated 2 million landmines in the DMZ.”

The ecological value of the Korean DMZ went up this week with the news that an endangered Asiatic black bear has been spotted wandering around the area. It’s at least one of five black bears that are confirmed to exist there, including three young bears and two parents. There could be more living in the more dangerous parts of the zone that are off limits because of unexploded military ordinance.

Lee says photos of the bear are “very significant” because it’s “evidence of the unique ecological value of the DMZ that has been cut from human contact for nearly 66 years since the Korean war armistice in 1953”.

But humans still pose a threat to the region, which has been nominated to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Of course, the major threat is another war between the two Koreas; but ironically a major threat also comes from peace between the two Koreas that are willing to sacrifice nature for the development of their economy by linking rail and roads through the DMZ,” Lee said.

Indeed, the Ministry of Environment confirms this threat.

There has been increasing demand for development in this area as new opportunities arose for interaction and cooperation between the South and North after the 2000s, raising concern over development-related damage to the natural environment of the DMZ, which has been conserved until today.

“We need to plan very carefully not to disrupt this ecological bonanza,” Lee concluded.

The lesson here is that nature can rebuild if humans allow it to do so. The Korean DMZ is proof that plants and animals can thrive if humans leave them alone. Sadly, it took a war to teach that lesson and it could all be destroyed again by either more war or peace.

If North and South Korea are going to agree on anything, it should be that the Korean DMZ environment should be protected and remains untouched by humans. Perhaps that’s the best way to put both on the road toward lasting peace, between themselves and with nature.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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