A view of North Korea from the village of Panmunjom, in the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone, shows undisturbed vegetation. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Where once the air was filled with the thud of artillery shells, now there’s birdsong and the rustling of animals in the undergrowth. A landscape once denuded by napalm and later Agent Orange is carpeted in green, a winter home for red-crowned cranes.

Almost seven decades after the Korean War ended in a truce, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is strewn with land mines and fenced with barbed wire, but it has also become a wildlife sanctuary like no other place on the densely populated and intensively cultivated peninsula.

This haven is under threat, however, as South Korean politicians push development projects they say will advance the cause of peace.

A road is being planned across rich marshlands to the Kaesong joint industrial zone in the North, while three hiking routes and an art museum have been opened on the southern side of the DMZ. Other projects, including a peace bridge and a peace city, remain on the drawing board as optimism about peace ebbs amid a flurry of North Korean missile tests, but conservationists worry that it is only a matter of time before more projects materialize.

“The flora and fauna here represent the best protected example of what can live in this temperate climate zone,” said Kim Seung-ho of the DMZ Ecology Research Institute, looking out from a vantage point bordering the zone to the expanse of rivers, forests and islands where humans dare not tread. 

“In terms of biodiversity, it’s unparalleled in South Korea and includes many species that need to be preserved at an international level,” he said. “It’s also a good example of how nature can restore itself when there is no human intervention for a long time.” 


Kim Seung-ho of the DMZ Ecology Research Institute conducts studies of the environment at the inter-Korean border. (Min Joo Kim/The Washington Post)

The DMZ stretches 160 miles from one shore of the Korean Peninsula to the other. Across the 2½ -mile-wide ribbon of land, soldiers from the North and the South watch each other warily, but beneath their guard posts, plant and animal life flourishes.

On the southern side, a civilian control zone (CCZ) provides an additional buffer, between three and 12 miles wide, where some rice farming takes place but human access is limited. 

The mountains along the border are home to the endangered Amur leopard cat, Siberian flying squirrel and even the occasional Asiatic black bear, while rivers and wetlands nourish golden eagles, water deer, snow geese and otters, as well as many endangered species of fish and frogs. 

But Kim says the voices of conservationists are being drowned out as South Korea rushes to show visible signs of detente with the North. 

“Inter-Korean relations are very important, but the natural resources inside the DMZ are also very, very precious,” he said. “The South Korean government is pursuing this with a little too much haste, because they want to show peace is happening.”

That does not mean the South Korean government is unaware of the region’s value as a natural resource.

In June, UNESCO designated large swaths of the CCZ as “biosphere reserves,” expressing hope that revenue from eco-tourism might lessen local resistance to environmental projects.


The border area, closed to civilian access for nearly 70 years and fortified with fences and land mines, has become a sanctuary for wildlife. (Min Joo Kim/The Washington Post)

South Korea says it would like to work with the North to make the entire DMZ a biosphere reserve, while its Forest Service is conducting reforestation projects at five locations near the border this year, according to forestry officer Kim Il-sook.

The Environment Ministry is also working on policy guidelines to conserve nature in the border area, said Han Sang-yee, an official in the ministry’s Nature and Ecology Division. 

Kim Seung-ho, the ecologist, says there is no need to start building a road to Kaesong while sanctions on North Korea remain in place.

“They are going to fill up the marshlands to build this highway,” he said, pointing to the wetlands past a fence topped with barbed wire. “But we don’t even know when Kaesong will be reopened, so I don’t think we should push ahead with the road.”

Nial Moores, the British co-founder of Birds Korea, an organization devoted to the conservation of birds and their habitats in the region, says the CCZ has been opened up and developed significantly in the past decade.

“If one road is built, there is a plan for a dozen more, so what will this area start to look like?” he said. 

Of all the species that make the DMZ their home, none is more iconic than the red-crowned crane. Across Korea, Japan and China, the birds are symbols of longevity, even immortality, of purity and peace. They appear on notes and coins, in paintings, on chopsticks and ancient ceremonial bronzeware, and even form the logo of Japan’s national airline.

Of a population of just 3,000 birds, one-third winter in the Korean border area, spending their days picking up spilled rice from the fields of the CCZ and their nights in the less disturbed DMZ. North of the border, “food is so important that when people harvest rice fields, they don’t leave any spilled rice,” said Moores, a conservation scientist.

Preserving the habitat of these majestic birds will require active management, he said, but it could someday form the basis of research and collaboration between the two Koreas that would benefit both countries. 


Red-crowned cranes, seen here in Hokkaido, Japan, are found in abundance in the Korean demilitarized zone. (Takashi Noguchi/AFP/Getty Images)

“What kind of rice crops can be grown with a reduced amount of pesticide?” he said. “Are these rice strains attractive to cranes? There is the potential, time and space to do some really great research.” 

The environmental pressures on the two sides of the DMZ are different but equally intense. Urbanized, rich, densely populated South Korea still wants to be self-sufficient in food and cultivates every available inch of suitable land. The North, driven by poverty, is doing the same, as well as overexploiting and, in many places, polluting its rivers.

Last year, North Korea joined the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty established by UNESCO in 1971, and put aside two important wetland areas for conservation. Pyongyang officials understand that their the country has limited natural resources, Moores says, so “they are very determined to use their resources as wisely as possible.”

But the North also views the DMZ as primarily a military zone, Moores adds, tending to see grand — and unilateral — South Korean proposals for biosphere reserves and peace parks there as potential “land grabs.”

Moores said what he wants to see is habitat management and research in the CCZ that offers practical benefits for people and wildlife alike — and ultimately a channel for cooperation between the two Koreas. But after two decades working in conservation in South Korea, he is frustrated.

“During that time, I've heard dozens of proposals and counterproposals, but I have yet to see any real management of habitat in ways that really could help to build trust and sustain populations of wild birds while improving the livelihoods of local people,” he said.

“Twenty years have been lost, effectively.”

Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.