Ecological Significance and Conservation of DMZ Ecosystems

in Central Korea


Do-Soon Cho

School of Life Sciences,The Catholic University of Korea,

Puchon, Kyonggi-do, 420-743, Korea



1. Introduction


DMZ (demilitarized zone) is the area set up between the borders of South Korea and North Korea in 1953 after the Korean War. It is 248 km long and 4 kilometers wide, and the total area is about 1,000 km2. The whole area is surrounded by wire entanglements both at the southern and northern limit lines, and thus it is one large ecosystem completely isolated from human interference except for some military activities. The whole area of DMZ is filled with many different kinds of mine, and even military guards can walk only on designated trails. Satellite photos show that DMZ is the only continuous unbroken green area in the Korean peninsula.

Another important feature of DMZ is that it is surrounded by a buffer zone called CCZ (civilian control zone) set by South Korea. The width of CCZ is 8 to 12 km from the southern limit of DMZ, and civilian activities are strictly controlled for military purposes. Although some agricultural activities are allowed in CCZ, many areas, especially in eastern mountainous areas, are ecologically very similar to DMZ and may play a role of core or buffer zone for wild life. A similar zone is also existing in North Korea, too. Huge amounts of mines are also buried in CCZ and they might have played an important role in the protection of natural ecosystems in DMZ and CCZ.

There are two generally misconceived myths about DMZ. The general Korean people who have never had a chance to see DMZ think that DMZ is now covered with pristine forests due to natural succession for almost 50 years without any human intervention. It is wrong because north Korean soldiers annually set fires to clear view for better watching, and many lowland areas are covered with grasses, and even mountainous areas are staying at the early stages of forest succession except in eastern deep mountainous valleys. The second wrong myth, usually believed by those people who are familiar with DMZ such as soldiers, is that DMZ is a barren land because of frequent fires and it needs to be developed. This is wrong too. Fires can maintain natural grasslands, which are very rare especially in the lowlands in the Korean peninsula because of development to agricultural fields. In addition, ecosystems affected by fire support more wild animals than closed forests due to luxurious growth of grasses and forbs by fast recycling of nutrients and removal of trees. Thus fire may increase ecosystem diversity and also the diversity of wild animals. We have to bear in mind that fire-dominated ecosystems such as Yellowstone National Park and prairies of North America are not barren lands but are natural treasures.



2. Ecological Values and Necessity for Conservation of DMZ and CCZ Ecosystems


DMZ has served the last refuge for wild organisms in Korea, and attracted the World’s attention as a unique ecosystem and as the center for biodiversity of Korea. There are several reasons why we have to conserve natural ecosystems of DMZ and CCZ. Many endemic species and rare or endangered species inhabit DMZ and CCZ, such as crane, trout, goral. These areas have high degrees of naturality, and without any military action, natural ecological succession soon occur. However, if the two Koreas are united abruptly, it will soon be destroyed during the disorder. We have to prepare the conservation policies and regulations ahead of time.

There are 5 important areas in the DMZ. (1) Hyangnobong Mountains Area, (2) Mt. Daeamsan  - Pond Dutayeon Area, (3) Cholwon Plain Area, (4) Wetland Area at the estuary of Imjin River, (5) Mudflat Area of West Coast. Among them, Hyangnobong Mountains Area and Mt. Daeamsan Area are composed of forest ecosystems, and Cholwon Plains Area and Imjin River Wetland Area are wintering ground for cranes and other migratory birds, and West Coast Mudflats are stopping areas for migratory waterfowls.

Mts. Hyandnobong area has rugged mountain terrain, and most of the region is well protected as DMZ and CCZ. In addition, it is used as a refuge for endangered wild big mammals such as goral, otter, wild cat, and musk deer. It plays a role as an ecological corridor between Mt. Sorak Biosphere Reserve of South Korea and Mt. Kumgang (Mt. Diamond) of North Korea. It is suggested that Mt. Sorak, Mt. Kumgang and Mtns. Hyangnobong can be considered as one ecosystem and it might be nominated as a World Heritage in the future. The native Siberian tiger is reported to occur in this area.

Mt. Daeamsan  - Pond Dutayeon Area is biogeographically very important as it is the southern or northern limits of many species. Swamp Yong-neup within the Mt. Daeamsan, located in the CCZ, was registered as Ramsar site and is a Natural Ecosystem Conservation Area, and many plants occurring in the swamp are endangered or rare species designated by the Ministry of Environment of Korea. Pond Dutayeon is the biggest habitat for trout which was designated as a national monument.

Cholwon Plain is a highland plateau composed of basalt bedrock, and it contains diverse ecosystems such as forests, rice paddies, wetlands, and hot springs. It is internationally well known as the wintering ground or stopping area for several species of cranes. However, land use patterns are very important for the protection of cranes, and thus it might be one of the best areas for future transboundary biosphere reserve in Korea by UNESCO MAB.

Imjin River Wetlands are located at the western end of DMZ. Since most lowlands in Korea have been converted to rice paddies, the wetlands formed on the floodplain, mostly reconverted back from the former rice paddies, in the DMZ area since the end of the Korean War are very unique and rare ecosystems in Korea. Finally, West Coast Mudflats are internationally well known ecosystems for migratory waterfowls, but the areas between the two Koreas are very important because they are well protected and many other mudflat areas are reclaimed or developed already.



3. Conservation measures for DMZ ecosystems.


Since DMZ is unique in the world and it is the center for biodiversity of Korea, conservation measures are urgently needed. Many sectors of Korean government want to develop it for various uses. However, it is the only place left for the nature in Korea. The most important thing now is that the DMZ ecosystems should not be divided or fragmented by roads or railroads, and before the reunification of the two Koreas, the ownership of DMZ should be bought beforehand for the protection from development. This could be done by the Korean Government, by the National Trust of Korea, or by some international agencies. Also important is the collaborative research on the ecology of DMZ by both south and north Korean scholars before reunification for the establishment of management strategies of DMZ ecosystems. The whole DMZ ecosystems should be considered as a core area, but CCZ areas can be divided into core, buffer or transition zones. We should not let the CCZ developed uncontrollably. Sustainable development of CCZ should be planned in context of the conservation of DMZ. Finally, it is suggested that DMZ can become a biosphere reserve or world heritage site of UNESCO if efficient conservation measures are agreed between the two Korean Governments.