Oct. 13, 1997 University Park, Pa. --- The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) once symbolized war and conflict, a 366-square-mile area rigidly separating North and South Korea totally unhabited by humans. Today, the DMZ may represent a major hope for peace between the two Koreas.
In the current issue of Science magazine (Oct. 10), Penn State scientist Ke Chung Kim, professor of entomology, recommends the official conversion of the DMZ into a system of bioreserves that would offer havens for rare and endangered species of animals and plants, as well as an economic boost for North and South Korea.
"The preservation of DMZ ecosystems is basic to Korea's preservation and environmental restoration efforts," says Dr. Kim. "The Korean Peace Bioreserves System that I proposed in 1994 provides a strategy to preserve the DMZ's rich biodiversity that is critical to conservation efforts in Korea. Joint development of the KPBRS will foster trust, understanding and respect between the Democratic People's Republic Of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south."
Korea's ecosystems and landscapes have been systematically compromised by aggressive economic development and military buildup along with rapid urbanization, Dr. Kim notes. For example, in South Korea, most natural ecosystems, including large sections of the coastline and salt marshes, have been converted into industrial estates and urban centers. Such efforts resulted in severe pollution of waterways and farmlands and destruction of habitats for animals and insects. In North Korea, rampant deforestation has caused severe soil erosion and flooding, he says.
This massive environmental degradation in both Koreas has led to the loss of plant and animal species in areas outside of the DMZ, says the Penn State researcher. "The 1994 biodiversity study showed that 14 percent of birds, 23 percent of freshwater fishes and 60 percent of amphibians, for example, have been destroyed or endangered."
Because of its isolated status, rare animal and plant species are currently found in the DMZ. The ecosystems of the DMZ and a buffer zone, the Civilian Control Zone, provide wintering grounds for two of the world's most endangered birds: the white-naped crane and the red-crowned crane.
While the ROK government in South Korea has voiced support for the preservation of the DMZ ecosystems, the Construction-Transportation Ministry this month announced plans to seek legislation to drastically erase green belt regulations, the result of lobbying by land developers.
Dr. Kim acknowledges the political and economic pressures, saying "The Korean population of the whole peninsula may reach 100 million by the year 2025, and continued economic development activities will require additional appropriation of lands and natural resources. But the lack of a commitment to preserving biodiversity in favor of short-term economic development will hurt Korea's economy in the long-term by destroying its natural resources."
Creating a bioreserve system in the DMZ could result in economic opportunities such as international parks for resource conservation and ecotourism, like the La Amistad International Park (Biosphere Reserve) between Costa Rica and Panama, says the Penn State scientist.
Working together on a joint project to create and manage a Korean bioreserve system could gradually eliminate the distrust between the two countries and lead to further collaboration, Dr. Kim suggests.
In late September, the preliminary round of the Korean peace talks had broken down. "Environmental issues may be the least provocative way of breaking the ice," he says.
Over the past two years, Dr. Kim has been talking with groups of government officials, scientists and other agencies to promote and build support for the concept of the Korean Peace Bioreserves Systems not only from both Korean governments, but also in the United States and througout the world.
"The processing of building Korean Peace Bioreserves System will not only foster close relationships between the two Koreas, but it also will ultimately improve environmental security and nurture cultural revival, thus building human security on the Korean peninsula," he says.
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