Making Peace with Nature: The Greening of the Korean Demilitarized Zone

By Eleana Kim, University of Rochester §

Through my ongoing research on the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), I am engaging with broader questions about the “nature” of militarized landscapes and the production of their ecological value. In this piece, I examine how South Korean state and NGO projects configure the DMZ as a unique site of biodiversity that could provide the basis for sustainable development and also peace on the Korean peninsula. These projects, however, often depend upon a branding of the DMZ as a bounded space of pristine nature, disregarding the more complex social and political landscapes of the inter-Korean border region, of which the DMZ is just one part. This tendency to fetishize the DMZ and its “nature,” moreover, disguises the ways in which global capitalism, development, and militarization are affecting other parts of the border region, areas where the majority of what is known of the “DMZ’s biodiversity” exists.

This map shows the location and spatial extent of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and its surrounding geographies.The dotted line is the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the actual border between North Korea and South Korea. The area shaded in dark grey is the DMZ, the area shaded in medium grey is the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) and the light grey area is the border area. This image was adapted from Kim, Kwi-gon and Dong-Gil Cho. 2005. “Status and Ecological Resource Value of the Republic of Korea’s De-militarized Zone.” Landscape and Ecological Engineering 1: 4.

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is often described as a space of superlative and jarring juxtapositions: the most heavily militarized area in the world and one of the last remnants of the Cold War; a no-man’s land for sixty years turned into an accidental haven of biodiversity. In South Korea, despite the persistence of the Cold War division and ongoing tensions with the North, the DMZ’s “return to nature” and symbolic potential have fueled state visions of converting the forbidden zone into a peace park or ecological preserve since the 1990s.[1] North Korean opposition, however, has consistently forestalled such plans. Despite this serial disappointment, and in the midst of the latest round of military provocations and propagandistic saber-rattling on both sides of the border, Park Geun-hye, the newly elected president of South Korea, during her visit to Washington D.C. in May 2013, announced her intention to build an “international peace park” in the DMZ to send “a message of peace to all of humanity.” Although she did not make an explicit connection in her speech between the DMZ’s ecological renaissance and its function as a symbol of peace, the equation between the two has been central to official state branding of the DMZ as a zone of “peace and life.”

But what is the “nature” of the DMZ that is being preserved? The DMZ proper is 4 kilometers wide and 248 kilometers long and serves as a buffer between the two Koreas, mandated by the armistice agreement signed in July 1953. It encompasses multiple ecosystems, including mountain highlands, lowland wetlands, grasslands, five rivers, and watersheds. What is referred to as “the DMZ region,” however, is a more expansive area that includes the adjacent Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), which extends south from the DMZ between four and twelve kilometers.

Korean Water Deer in the CCZ, January 2012. Photo by author.

In fact, one of the major sticking points for measuring the DMZ’s ecological value is the lack of knowledge of what constitutes the biodiversity of the DMZ proper. Surveys starting in the 1990s have documented eighty-two rare and endangered species in areas within and around the DMZ and the CCZ, out of a total of 2,900 plant and animal species, which represent the majority of the all species in the peninsula. Existing surveys inside the DMZ, however, have been spotty and unsystematic, due to difficulties of accessing the highly restricted area, which requires oversight from the UN Command. Thus, ecological knowledge of the “DMZ” is more often based on research in the CCZ and other parts of the border region, where evidence of charismatic megafuna like highly endangered migratory cranes, the rare Amur Goral, and even the apocryphal Siberian Tiger has attracted international attention. In light of these data, conservationists and others have become intrigued by the DMZ’s possibilities as a conservation area and peace park, and central and regional governments have been engaged in sustainable development projects as a solution to the economically stagnant border area to capitalize on the ecotouristic value of the DMZ.

I have worked closely with a small NGO of citizen ecologists that monitors the ecology of the western side of the DMZ region in the area of the Han River estuary and related wetlands, which are habitats for numerous species, the most celebrated of which are the highly endangered Red-crowned Crane (grus japonensis) and the White-naped Crane (grus vipio). The Red-Crowned Crane in particular is culturally valued across East Asia. Both species are declining in numbers, with a global population of 2,750 for the Red-Crowned Crane and around 5,500 for the White-naped Crane. They typically mate for life and produce one or two offspring per year.

White-naped Cranes feeding on a fallow rice paddy in the CCZ, October 2012. Photo by author.

The cranes’ rarity and association with the DMZ render them even more symbolically potent, especially given the fact that they metaphorically and literally connect the two Koreas as they cross the border annually in their migrations from breeding areas in eastern Russia to the southern half of the DMZ area, where they feed on grains from rice paddies following the autumn harvest. Even as these birds are associated with the DMZ as an ecologically valuable space and branded as an integral part of this landscape (rice grown in the CCZ area is marketed as “Red-crowned Crane rice”), their survival is enmeshed in relationships with humans and agriculture that has evolved over centuries, if not longer.

On the western side of the border area, where wintering populations of Red-crowned cranes used to number in the hundreds, pressures on land use due to development have created inhospitable conditions and loss of habitat for the cranes and other migratory birds like the Bean Goose and the Greater White-fronted Goose. Landowners are increasingly converting fields and forests to high-profit greenhouse products like bell peppers and blueberries, or shade-grown ginseng. Both ginseng fields and greenhouses reduce the amount of feeding and roosting habitats for cranes, and the extension of the agricultural calendar from seasonal rice cultivation and harvesting to year-round production means more human activity and vehicular traffic during the cranes’ wintering months – between October and March. Moreover, electrified greenhouses require the erection of more power lines, which are a major hazard for migratory birds. Dozens of birds are injured or killed annually from collisions with power lines and fences, or poisoning from pesticides. In effect, the nature of the CCZ is far from pristine, and is becoming increasingly developed, threatening the very species whose presence is heralded.

Citizen ecologists monitoring aquatic insects in small irrigation ponds in the CCZ, April 2012. Photo by author.

For ecologists and crane conservationists, these developments in the CCZ are dismaying. Their monitoring work can often seem like a salvage project, as they meticulously document pockets of biodiversity while the landscape around them is transformed into plastic-covered ginseng fields created atop former forests and meadows. Urbanization and the construction of new edge cities along the western coast are destroying wetland habitats used by cranes and other birds. In response to these developments in the South, the International Crane Foundation has shifted its conservation efforts for the Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes to the North Korean side of the border in hopes that underdevelopment there will make the restoration of crane wintering habitats more viable in the long term. International designation from the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands or the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve might help to stave off the degradation of the CCZ’s landscapes, but with the expansion of ecotourism sites and facilities in the western part of the CCZ, as well as plans to create zones for inter-Korean economic cooperation within the DMZ, many committed ecologists and environmentalists are less than optimistic about the sustainability of these precious habitats.

President Park’s announcement of the peace park may have seemed merely utopian to some, especially at a moment when inter-Korean diplomacy had reached a particularly low point. The DMZ, however, invites just such projections of hope and myth-making. Many people in South Korea and internationally have become enraptured by the story of the zone and its ecological renaissance. That the most extreme example of human political strife and violence can inadvertently create a preserve for endangered species feeds romantic visions of nature’s resilience and indifference to human design. Imagining the DMZ as a site of pristine nature, however, requires one to forget its ongoing social and historical transformations, as well as the material conditions of its militarization, not the least of which includes over one million landmines within the zone and another one million in the CCZ. The space of the DMZ may be literally shaped by military conflict and political stalemate, but its ecology is also deeply enmeshed with global capitalism. It is at the nexus of militarization and neoliberalization that the DMZ’s nature now emerges as an object of fascination and instrumentalization. The idea of conserving the DMZ as a protected area may provide a glimmer of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation, yet, the romanticization of nature in the zone, whether in the name of unification politics or sustainable development, may be obscuring the ongoing endangerment of the border area’s actually existing biodiversity.


[1] This “return to nature” narrative is not unique to the DMZ. In fact, the post-Cold War era has witnessed a number of decommissioned militarized spaces and borders that are being converted into conservation areas after having been “off limits” to civilians and thereby unintentional sanctuaries for other species for decades (despite or because of intense toxicity and militarized pollution). In addition, Transboundary Conservation Areas have been widely celebrated as a “global solution” to conservation and sustainable development (as Bram Büscher describes it in his excellent new book, Transforming the Frontier), in which landscapes of political antagonism could be transformed into zones of mutual cooperation and peace.

Eleana Kim is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rochester University. Her first book, Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging (Duke University Press) was published in 2010. Her current project, Making Peace with Nature: The Greening of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, received an ACLS/SSRC/NEH fellowship in 2011-12. Articles on adoption have appeared in Anthropological Quarterly, Social Text, and the Journal of Korean Studies. Articles on the DMZ have appeared or are forthcoming on and Perspectives: The Journal of the Rachel Carson Institute. She can be reached at: