Serenity in Chaos: The (Political) Ecology of Korea's DMZ

Serenity in Chaos: The (Political) Ecology of Korea's DMZ

. 5 min read

635,000 is a number that is hard to comprehend. But it was very real for those residing in the Korean peninsula from 1950 to 1953, when 635,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the peninsula by the United States. These bombs—including 32,500 tons of napalm—outnumbered those used by the United States in the entire Pacific Theater during World War II and physically destroyed much of the region’s environment through scorched earth tactics. Although many Americans consider the Korean War, sandwiched in public memory between World War II and the Vietnam War, to be “forgotten,” it is unforgettable for the Koreans who lived through those years, and those who experience its lasting effects. Many explosives from the era are still being uncovered in modern day. Current estimates indicate that it will take at least another century for all bombs to be discovered, continuing to cause Korean deaths on both sides of the 38th parallel as precarious explosive recovery efforts continue.

More recently, though, the war’s tensions have moved into the realm of diplomacy. Much of today’s conflict is predicated on a series of agreements made as a result of previous physical engagements. Following Joseph Stalin’s death nearly 70 years ago, the physical conflict on the peninsula ended with the Korean Armistice Agreement, contentious from its beginning. Although it still stands on paper, its efficacy has been greatly weakened through recent actions on the peninsula, including North Korea’s six statements that it would not abide by the agreement. According to the South Korean government, North Korea has violated the agreement 221 times since its inception in 1953, including through bombings on Yeonpyeong Island and attempted assassinations of South Korean leaders. North Korea makes similar accusations of the South. There have been a considerable number of attempts at peace and reconciliation on the peninsula, ranging from the 1954 Geneva Conference to the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework to the 2000 Joint Declaration on Peace, but each has seemed to erode in its efficacy, either almost immediately or over time. Fortunately, direct confrontations have decreased and tensions have remained manageable in recent years, especially following the Panmunjom Declaration brokered in 2018. Yet summits following Panmunjom have failed and, ultimately, there is still no formal peace agreement on the peninsula, meaning that the Korean War officially continues.

Despite the Armistice Agreement’s fluctuating efficacy, one of its most enduring features is the Demilitarized Zone, more commonly known as the DMZ. This 250 km long, 2.5 km wide strip of land acts a buffer between North and South Korea, and has historically been a place for manifestations of diplomatic tension. Recent developments in the wake of the Panmunjom Declaration have resulted in a reduction of violence in the region through additional buffer zones, no-fly zones, and Yellow Sea peace zones intended to limit aggressive military actions. Additionally, a bilateral effort to remove guard posts and mines from the region was completed in 2018. Nonetheless, these agreements remain tentative and the DMZ continues to be an incredibly dangerous place, filled with enough military officials, barbed wire, and explosives to be deemed the “scariest place on Earth.”

However, a pristine picture of serenity has emerged in the midst of this chaos. The DMZ’s unique combination of varied geography and virtual isolation for almost three quarters of a century has turned the region into a natural, unregulated park teeming with wildlife. Through what may be seen as a silver lining to the cloud that is the physically and politically destructive Korean conflict, biodiversity flourishes. Rare species that had previously been on the brink of extinction, including the rare Amur leopard, are, ironically, able to thrive in a region that lies in the shadow of its history of violence. This has also allowed for the region to be seen in a new light. Since the 1990s, scientists have proposed turning the DMZ into a protected area for wildlife, bringing researchers and ecotourists alike into the area and redefining its effect on the Korean conflict.

Presently, scientists seeking to perform research on the DMZ’s wildlife are generally restricted from entering. They are often forced to conduct their studies from the Civilian Control Zone, also known as the CCZ, which is an additional buffer of the DMZ. However, these scientists, many of whom are motivated by the desire to understand how the area’s wildlife can be protected if the DMZ were to become widely inhabited again in the event of future Korean reunification, believe a biosphere reserve would provide greater access. Their efforts have even received the financial backing of media mogul Ted Turner and the moral backing of both North and South Korea, who have agreed that the area should remain protected in the event of reunification. But the politics of the region have unfortunately limited the success of initiatives that reach across the border. The South Korean government attempted to create a UNESCO recognized biosphere reserve in the DMZ in 2011 through UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Reserve Programme. However, this was postponed due to objections from North Korea, who claimed that it violated the Korean Armistice Agreement.

Nonetheless, the movement has made progress not only in its goal of promoting conservation, but also in developing the region as a catalyzer of peace. In 2019, the South Korean government established the Gangwon Eco-Peace Reserve along the southern boundary of the DMZ. Aside from being a dedicated site for ecological research, it also provides an opportunity for the study of “relics” of the Korean War, opening up dialogue about the war’s impacts and potential for future peace. To the end of promoting peace, the South Korean Ministry of Reunification has also taken efforts to bring civilians into peacemaking efforts, working alongside the United Nations Command to launch the “Peace Trail” project. Recognizing that the region “is the world’s last war-induced national division and at the same time is a reservoir of biodiversity with a rich ecosystem,” the initiative holds that its rapidly expanding base of hiking tours showing off the region’s wildlife will “provide conditions for turning the DMZ into a peace zone while solidifying peace in the DMZ.” While the scope of this project is currently largely limited with only a few citizens able to participate, it points to a greater trend aimed at utilizing the region’s resources, both physical and sentimental, to reduce tensions.

Of course, there remain significant issues resulting from the dual goal of promoting peace and conservation. Some argue that the development of peacekeeping operations will pose a significant threat to the area’s wildlife. Clearly, the potential for military violence may threaten the region's environment. However, researchers like Jung Suyoung argue that actions like demining the region, a show of solidarity between the two nations and the antithesis of the military violence, could harm biodiversity by uprooting plants. Similarly, other activities meant to limit military action often bring an extensive number of people into the area, inadvertently causing damage to the environment through external exposure. This creates an unfortunate predicament for decision makers: while supporters aim to protect the region’s wildlife with a biosphere reserve, they also attempt to use the reserve to promote peace, a goal that could undermine their first priority. This creates a morally ambiguous question about what can, and should, be done to address both pressing issues.

Kim Seung-ho, head of the DMZ Ecology Research Institute, has stated that “if you were to do an experiment on how new species could be restored when the Earth has gone to ruins, the DMZ would be the best place.” Perhaps this quote could also be a reflection on the politics of the Korean peninsula. Although the region remains a source of great tension, recent developments provide hope that shared sentiments towards a topic as universal as the protection of nature may provide the impetus for long-term peace. However, an observation of present debates regarding whether a biosphere reserve should exist and if so, what its role should be, points to an interesting conclusion—nature thrives without human intervention and human conflict. Perhaps we could take a cue from nature’s guidance as we look towards a peaceful resolution.

Shriya Yarlagadda

Shriya is Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard International Review. She enjoys reading and writing about human rights, international security, and environmental politics.