Green DMZ

Nancy Marie Brown
June 01, 1996

In the last 40 years, South Korea has seen a ten-fold increase in per capita GNP. "This economic miracle," writes Penn State entomologist K.C. Kim, "also comes with huge environmental and human costs."

korean stamp with beatle

Along with pollution-related health problems, one of the most devastating is the widespread destruction of natural habitats and resultant loss of biological species. Already, more than 18 percent of Korea's vertebrate species are endangered or extinct, including 60 percent of amphibians, 45 percent of reptiles, 13 percent of birds, and 25 percent of mammals. No longer can Korea be called keum-su-kang-san, "land of embroidered rivers and mountains."

Much of this diversity is being lost even before it is known to science. And with continuing urbanization—South Korea is one of the most densely populated countries on the globe, packing 1,230 people per square mile—the loss of species continues apace.

Except, ironically, along the Demilitarized Zone that separates South Korea from North Korea along the 38th Parallel. In this strip, 200 miles long by 10 miles wide (including the boundary areas), four decades of "forced inaccessibility" have created a natural sanctuary. No humans have set foot in the core zone, Kim says. Immediately to the south, however, South Korean scientists have recorded numerous previously unreported species and "re-discovered" many that were thought to have been lost, along with a number of unique habitats. "The biota of the DMZ corridor," Kim writes, "represents the last vestige of natural heritage of the Korean peninsula."

To preserve it, Kim would like to turn the DMZ into a system of permanent bioreserves.

The idea is not new. Kim, who was born in Korea and came to the United States after graduating from the National University in Seoul in 1956, began thinking about the DMZ as a good place to preserve back in 1965, while he was working on a Smithsonian Institution project to study the area's ecology. Over the ensuing decades, however, the timing—and political winds—have never been quite right.

Until recently. In 1991, the governments of North and South Korea signed a pact of reconciliation and nonaggression. At about the same time, Kim says, the leaders of both republics agreed that the DMZ should be converted to some peaceful use.

korean stamp with fly

Then, in 1993, Kim returned to South Korea as a Fulbright scholar. While there, he proposed the development of a biodiversity conservation "blueprint" for South Korea for the coming century. With input from South Korean government agencies, research institutes, and some 50 scientific societies, the 400-page plan, Biodiversity Korea 2000: A strategy to save, study, and sustainably use Korea's biotic resources, was completed in and published in 1994. Emboldened by this success, Kim decided the time was finally right to launch the Korea Peace Bioreserves System (KPBS) project.

As head of the project's steering committee, Kim says, his goal is not only to provide scientific and technical expertise but also to coordinate the extensive international planning and cooperation that will be needed to make the bioreserve a reality. As a "neutral" Korean-American scientist, he says, he feels uniquely qualified to serve as a liaison between North and South Korean colleagues who have no way to communicate directly.

Already, the project has received seed funding from the Asia Foundation of San Francisco, and Kim has developed scientific and political contacts on both sides of the 38th parallel. Next, Kim and his committee aim to convene an international conference, which they hope will lead to a formal agreement between the two Koreas.

Kim envisions the DMZ as the eventual core of a larger network of protected areas across Korea, all connected by natural corridors or greenways. In addition to its importance for conservation, he sees the bioreserve as a way to promote a greater harmony between the two Koreas.

"At this stage of my career," Kim says, "I am happy for an opportunity to use my scientific expertise to contribute, if I can, to an easing of tensions."

K.C. Kim, Ph.D., is professor of entomology and director of the Center for Biodiversity Research, 117 Land & Water Bldg, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-0159. Preliminary funding for the Korean Peace Bioreserve System project has been provided by the Asia Foundation of San Francisco.

Last Updated June 01, 1996