By Sophie Cho
SONGDO, South Korea — The Demilitarized Zone. What comes to your mind? Many will imagine a barren wasteland with soldiers grimly guarding the border. However, the DMZ is more than just a political buffer; it is an ecological treasure.
A 150-mile long border area created in July 1953 to separate North and South Korea after a bitter three-year conflict, the DMZ came to represent political stability on a divided Korean peninsula.
Over time, however, not only did the DMZ develop into a zone of relative peace — its 60-year isolation from civilization transformed it into a hub of ecological activity with flourishing flora and fauna.
The DMZ, hosting 41 percent of endangered species and more than 70 percent of endangered birds in South Korea, has immense ecological value. To protect this vital ecology, organizations like the DMZ Ecology Research Institute have led activities such as species investigations, education programs and informational forums.
However, many challenges have hindered the path to DMZ preservation. Despite objections to unrestrained development, — including the construction of ginseng farms in the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), a 12-mile-wide buffer located beneath the DMZ’s southern border — the area has become much more developed, resulting in declining populations of plants and animals.
In particular, in 2012 UNESCO deferred the submission of the DMZ as a Biosphere Reserve because the government failed to designate buffer zones between the DMZ and the nearby provinces due to the opposition from local residents in regions such as Cheolwon-gun.
At a time of both political tensions in the Korean peninsula as well as South Korea’s plans to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, DMZ preservation is at a crucial crossroads. When working to preserve this unique environment, it is essential that all involved parties focus on the symbolic and ecological value of the DMZ rather than its complex political context.
Also, now that organizations are renewing their efforts for the DMZ’s designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, more global awareness is necessary for better recognition of the DMZ ecology’s significance.
The 2018 PyeongChang Olympics will bring a winter full of activity and enthusiasm for not only South Korea but also many other countries. Much attention has already been drawn to the divided nature of the Korean peninsula and the DMZ.
Ironically, the Olympics could be a chance for the world to learn more about the remarkable ecology of the DMZ.
The government of South Korea could help by promoting the idea of unity. As recent talks between North and South Korean sports officials have shown, the peninsula, despite longstanding divisions, can become united under a common passion. Whether it is the appreciation of the untouched natural world, the love of sports, or the yearning for peace at the borders, shared interests can unite people in the midst of political tensions.
These wishes for stability can be represented by a special region that should be recognized by all and preserved for generations for its immense ecological and social values: the DMZ.
—Featured image: Writer Sophie Cho (left) and fellow student Ha Eun Lee collect specimens from Bandal Irrigation Pond, Civilian Control Zone, South Korea on Aug.19, 2017. Cho and Lee participated in a learning activity for the DMZ student exploration program organized by the DMZ Ecology Research Institute. Specimens collected, including the Seoul pond frog, are used to teach students about the flora and fauna of the DMZ region. Photo by Seung-ho Kim, DMZ Ecology Research Institute/used with permission.
—This is an edited version of a story reprinted with permission from cijournalism.org. Sophie Cho is a student at Chadwick International school and a youth member of the DMZ Ecology Research Institute.