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Bullets and artillery shells once made the Ch’orwon Valley a bloody no-man’s land. Today along the dividing line between North and South Korea, the only things whistling through the air have feathers: A lush wildlife preserve has grown up inside the world’s most heavily fortified border—now home to a number of endangered species.

Eye in the Sky

But in a doubly ironic twist of fate, that little stretch of Eden is threatened by the possibility of peace.

With the warring sides seriously considering throwing down their arms, business interests in the South are salivating over the prospect of gaining access to Korea’s DMZ—the 2.5-mile-wide (4-kilometer), 155-mile-long (250-kilometer) demilitarized zone that stretches from one side of the peninsula to the other. Proposals already on the table for exploiting this potentially valuable real estate include industrial parks, housing developments, and even a Disneyland-type amusement center.

“The South Koreans don’t see anything but profit-making business ventures,” says Pennsylvania State University entomologist Ke Chung Kim, a native of Korea who is leading an international effort to preserve the DMZ as a green “Peace Park” after the two sides have settled their differences.

“The degradation is already going on,” says Kim, pointing to commercial inroads that have been made in a 3-to-12-mile-wide (5-20 km) civilian-controlled buffer zone running along the southern perimeter of the DMZ. “The current [South Korean] administration has been extremely lenient in waiving pollution controls and opening up those areas.”

The demilitarized zone is one of the few places remaining anywhere on the Korean peninsula that hasn’t been taken over by humans—to the detriment of the environment. If a peace agreement is signed, there will no longer be any need for people to keep their hands off this green ribbon of earth.


“On a peninsula that’s suffered incredible environmental decay, you have an area that’s gone untouched for 45 years now,” says Carroll Muffett, international counsel for Defenders of Wildlife. “One area of particular interest for us is the Asiatic black bear, which is critically endangered wherever it occurs in Asia.”

Heavily exploited in traditional medicine markets and for such products as bear paw soup, black bears have largely disappeared in South Korea, according to Muffett. “The DMZ may be one of the few areas remaining where any significant populations are left.”

Residents of the DMZ and its civilian-controlled buffer zone also include two of the world’s most endangered birds, which use the strip as wintering grounds: the white-naped and red-crowned cranes. Other endangered fliers that make their homes among the landmines seeded throughout the zone are the Chinese egret, black-faced spoonbill, swan goose, and spotted greenshank.

More than 51 species of mammals have been documented scientifically, including rare and endangered animals thought to have been wiped out elsewhere in Korea. Some scientists even believe they have found traces of leopard and a Korean subspecies of the Siberian tiger. Occasionally an animal—especially the abundant mule deer—trips a landmine and is destroyed. But in an area where humans rarely dare to go, those with paws and fur are largely left to themselves.

Elsewhere in the South, by contrast, rapid economic and urban development has led to extensive environmental degradation, with accompanying air and water pollution. Many plant and animal species have been exterminated or are in collapse. On both sides of the border, hillsides have been stripped of vegetation, causing erosion and floods.

DMZ Forum, an advocacy group headed by Kim, estimates that more than 20 percent of South Korea’s terrestrial vertebrates—including 48 percent of reptiles and 60 percent of amphibians—have been destroyed or are under severe threat. The group predicts that with the human population continuing to soar, further development will intensify environmental damage.


Conservation advocates point to other areas of the world where once-fortified military borders have become wildlife preserves, including a large strip along the border between China and Russia. But few such places are under the kind of commercial pressures as any available land in the economic juggernaut that South Korea has become. And with the country still in shock from its recent brief but intense recession, Kim reckons that the state of the environment ranks near the bottom of popular concerns.

Whereas the previous administration of South Korean President Kim Young-sam had adopted preservation of the DMZ as official government policy, Kim says, “The new administration [of President Kim Dae-jung] hasn’t made any statements on the environment. It’s completely missing from the government’s agenda and even vision. As a result, land use and other environmental situations are in real turmoil at this point.”

However, Peace Park advocates believe they have seen positive signs of interest from the North Korean government of Kim Jong Il—although until recently, interpreting the thoughts of the reclusive Communist leader has been an art akin to reading tea leaves. Last fall, the director-general of North Korea’s Nature Conservation Union in Pyongyang, in a radio statement broadcast by the government’s official news agency, cited preservation of the DMZ as a worthy goal.

Nine years ago the two governments formally agreed that the DMZ ultimately should be used for “peaceful purposes.” Kim and other nature advocates hope that now, as fortifications along the last border of the Cold War appear about to come down, the two sides will go the further step of agreeing to keep it green.

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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•  Korea’s DMZ, established by the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in Korea, is a 2.5-mile-wide (4-km), 155-mile-long (250-km) strip across the peninsula. Due to the lack of human activity inside the zone, it has become a refuge for plants and animals—-including some of the world’s most endangered.
•  The two-legged animals on either side of the line have not been so peaceful. More than 1,000 South Koreans, 50 Americans and many North Koreans have died in skirmishes over the years along the world’s most heavily fortified border.
•  A half-million South Koreans, backed up by 36,000 Americans and some of the world’s most advanced military hardware, guard the southern perimeter. An estimated one million troops are massed along the northern side.
•  Straddling the border, the village of Panmunjom—-destroyed by tank fire during the war—-now serves as the site of truce talks. Two U.S. soldiers were axed to death there by North Koreans in a 1976 dispute over tree pruning. In 1992 a gun battle resulted in the deaths of three North Koreans and wounding of two South Koreans.

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Isolated since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, economically hard-pressed North Korea during the last four months has been vigorously reaching out to other nations. An opening of one of the world’s last communist societies would end more than a half-century of hostility. Key dates:

  • 1945: After the defeat of Japan, Soviet and U.S. forces divide the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel and later establish regimes sympathetic to their interests.
  • June 25, 1950: The Communist North a launches surprise attack against the South.
  • October 1950: 200,000 Chinese troops attack U.S. forces nearing the Chinese border.
  • June 1951: Peace talks begin.
  • July 1953: After an armistice, the old frontier is restored and a demilitarized zone established separating the warring sides. However, a peace treaty is never concluded.
  • December 1991: Prime ministers of the North and South sign a declaration of non-aggression and pledge not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. But these and other agreements languish as mutual distrust continues.
  • July 1994: North Korean head of state Kim Il-sung dies and is succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il.
  • October 1994: North Korea and the U.S. agree to restrict nuclear power to peaceful uses. However, continuing evidence of nuclear activity interferes with continuing negotiations.
  • December, 1998: South Korea sinks a North Korean spy submarine deep in southern waters.
  • June 1999: South Korea clashes with North Korean torpedo boats trespassing in South Korean waters in the Yellow Sea.
  • March 2000: North Korea launches diplomatic initiative, establishing relations with Italy, resuming diplomatic discussions with Japan and Australia for the first time in years, and sending out feelers to other Western nations.
  • April 10, 2000: Following the first talks in seven years on normalizing relations, in a surprise announcement, the two Koreas agree to a historic summit in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
  • June 12-14, 2000: In his first meeting with a foreign head of state since taking office, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il confers cordially with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
  • June 19, 2000: U.S. government moves to lift a half-century of trade restrictions on North Korea. Coca-Cola subsequently announces plans to set up shop in Pyongyang.