[DMZ Ecosystem] DMZ-Ecological Paradise in Jeopardy
October 31, 2000

                                    By Soh Ji-young

                                    Staff Reporter

                                    For about half a century, the Demilitarized Zone, a 4 km-wide and
                                    155-mile-long strip of land along the 38th parallel line, was the long-
                                    standing symbol of separation and ideological conflict between the
                                    two Koreas.

                                    But now, with the wind of reconciliation blowing stronger than ever on
                                    the Korean peninsula, the DMZ is at the center of history again, this
                                    time in an entirely new light.

                                    In the aftermath of the historical summit meeting in June, North and
                                    South Korea agreed to reconnect the severed railway between Seoul
                                    and Sinuiju, and also build a adjacent highway through the DMZ.

                                    Set to be completed by September of next year, construction started
                                    on Sept. 18. It is currently in the stage of clearing away the tens of
                                    thousands of land mines buried in the bordering regions of the DMZ.

                                    But environmentalists are cautioning against the recent developments,
                                    as there are fears that the current trend of inter-Korean reconciliation
                                    might lead to projects that would harm the unique ecosystem of the
                                    DMZ and its surrounding areas.

                                    The DMZ was first defined along the Military Demarcation Line in 1953
                                    as a result of the cease-fire agreement to stop the Korean War. It
                                    extends from the island of Kyodong, Kanghwado, on the west and
                                    stretches for about 250 km to Myongho-ri, northern Kosong on the
                                    east. The DMZ separating the two Koreas has been rigidly enforced by
                                    the Military Armistice Commission, which prevents human inhabitation.
                                    The Civilian Controlled Area (CCA), located 5-20 km south of the DMZ,
                                    has also been very restricted, with development curbed due to the
                                    presence of army bases.

                                    As a result of being virtually untouched for 47 years, the land
                                    tarnished with ideological conflict was transformed into an ecological
                                    treasure trove, full of invaluable flora and fauna unlike anywhere in the
                                    world. The region is reported to house about 2,800 varieties of animals
                                    and plants, about 146 of which are endangered or rare species.

                                    ``The DMZ area is an ecological paradise, full of diverse animals and
                                    plants,'' said Kim Kwi-gon, professor of the department of landscape
                                    architecture at Seoul National University. He was the first civilian to
                                    conduct research inside the DMZ three years ago, and is currently
                                    serving as head of the research team formed to assess the
                                    environmental impact of the proposed inter- Korean highway on the
                                    DMZ area.

                                    ``Even land developers have recognized the necessity of preserving
                                    the DMZ,'' he said.

                                    International circles have also shown keen interest in the DMZ area,
                                    as it is the only region in the world where human interference was
                                    blocked for so long.

                                    Several organizations, such as the International Union for the
                                    Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources(IUCN) and UNESCO,
                                    are examining the scientific and legal possibilities for the
                                    establishment of a nature conservation and biodiversity protection
                                    area in the DMZ.

                                    From an ecological perspective, the DMZ and the surrounding zones
                                    can be largely divided into the western, center, and eastern areas,
                                    according to Kim.

                                    The western area of Kanghwa, Paju and Yonchon is home to many
                                    diverse flora and fauna of high ecological value. Eleven endangered
                                    species such as the yellow bittern, ruddy-breasted drake, gray-faced
                                    green woodpecker and black-capped kingfisher, as well as 13
                                    nationally designated protected species such as the Manchurian
                                    crane, golden eagle, white-naped crane and common kestrel were
                                    discovered. The area also has internationally protected species such
                                    as the gorani (a kind of roe deer), sak (a wild cat) and other various
                                    species indigenous to Korea.

                                    ``These were the findings of the research that Seoul National
                                    University conducted for the last two and a half years, with support
                                    from the UNDP and the Korean government,'' Kim explained.

                                    The high-altitude Chorwon plain, located in the central area, is a major
                                    bird migration site, particularly famous for being the winter home of the
                                    Manchurian crane, of which only about a thousand or so are left in
                                    the world. About 10 percent of the world's Manchurian cranes spend
                                    each winter at Chorwon. Many other endangered species, such as the
                                    white-naped crane, hooded crane and scaly-sided merganser can be
                                    also observed in the region.

                                    The mountainous eastern area containing Yanggu, Inje and Kosong is
                                    a treasure trove of rare plants such as the Korea sophora and the
                                    diamond bluebell. It is also home to ``Yongneup'' or ``Dragon
                                    Swamp,''located on Mt. Taeam, 1280m above sea level. Over 4,500
                                    years old, it is currently designated as a conserved wetland under the
                                    international Ramsar treaty.

                                    But with the recent thaw in inter-Korean relations, these regions are
                                    continuing to receive pressure for development. As the DMZ area is to
                                    serve as the main gateway in future cooperative projects between the
                                    North and the South, various suggestions are being made about how
                                    to utilize the region.

                                    Local groups in Kyonggi and Kangwon Province are hurrying to
                                    develop the area into a major tourist site, and major corporations are
                                    also eyeing the area for launching future projects that promise to be
                                    lucrative. Other ideas such as building a veterans museum, a meeting
                                    center for separated families, an industrial complex, or cultivating the
                                    area for farming are being proposed.

                                    Even more serious is the damage which is being done at this very
                                    moment. Environmentalists' concerns do not seem farfetched, as
                                    some valuable habitats and swamps located near the Sachon River
                                    have already shown damage due to the preliminary construction of the
                                    railroad. As the railroad and highway are about to be built straight
                                    across the Sachon River, the destruction of the river's ecosystem is
                                    also considered unavoidable.

                                    ``The government is recklessly overturning 10m of soil to remove the
                                    mines, without even considering the migration routes of wild animals,''
                                    said Ahn Chang-hee, director of the Northern Kyonggi Korean
                                    Federation for Environmental Movement.

                                    The Environment Ministry and the Construction and Transportation
                                    Ministry had formed a joint assessment team of 10 experts in related
                                    fields to assess the environmental impact of the proposed inter-
                                    Korean highway on the DMZ area. They had started work in late
                                    September, and are required to submit a report by December of this
                                    year after two months of investigations.

                                    But environmental groups have lashed out at the environmental
                                    assessment plans, claiming it is impossible to conduct a thorough
                                    survey in such a short time.

                                    ``The government is going ahead with the railroad plans unreasonably,
                                    without considering the environmental factors at all,'' said Seo
                                    Jae-chul, of the Green Korea United. Seo had first participated in the
                                    joint assessment team as a NGO representative, but later left the
                                    team to protest against the assessment, which he considers as
                                    nothing more than a formality.

                                    ``A assessment should be carried out for at least a year, to examine
                                    the wildlife during all of the four seasons,'' he said.

                                    ``A complete ecological study must be carried out before
                                    construction, and all the related parties, such as NGOs, experts, and
                                    government ministries must take part,'' he emphasized.

                                    To protect the ecology of the inter-Korean border regions, the
                                    Environment Ministry came up with a reform plan on Sept. 23, aiming
                                    at permanently preserving areas with high ecological value.

                                    ``After completing an overall analysis of the ecological system in DMZ
                                    and its surrounding areas, we will draw up an ecological map based on
                                    the findings, and enforce environmental impact assessment and prior
                                    ecological adaptability systems when promoting projects in the area,''
                                    said a ministry official. The subject areas cover 9,501.3 square
                                    meters, and encompass the DMZ, the North Korean border area and
                                    the southern and northern parts of the buffer zones.

                                    Areas will be classified into four categories: reserve area,
                                    conservation area, quasi-conservation area and rearrangement area,
                                    according to environmental value for enforcement of graded
                                    supervision. While reserve areas will be permanently preserved even
                                    after unification for academic research purposes, conservation areas
                                    will restrict development and quasi-conservation areas will be
                                    obligated to formulate an environmental restoration plan before
                                    launching projects. In the rearrangement area, ecological parks and
                                    tourist spots will be constructed, and ecological tourist courses
                                    leading to Mt. Sorak and Mt. Kumkang will be developed.

                                    ``We came up with the plans as massive development projects are
                                    expected in the buffer zones which serve as the connecting points
                                    between the North and South,'' the official said.

                                    But environmental experts are viewing the plan with skepticism, saying
                                    it will not be effective enough to stop unification projects that entail
                                    the possibility of harming the environment, such as the inter-Korean
                                    railroad.

                                    ``We welcome the construction of inter-Korean railroads and
                                    highways, as it contributes to laying the cornerstone for unification,''
                                    said director Ahn.

                                    ``But the North and South should first cooperate in conducting a
                                    thorough assessment of the ecological and cultural assets of the
                                    buffer zones, and then build environmentally-friendly management
                                    plans based on the data,'' said Ahn.

                                    The preservation of the DMZ depends on whether the two Koreas can
                                    muster enough determination to safeguard the precious ecological
                                    system, rather than risk its destruction through development.

contributed by TheKoreaTimes
 

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