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Korean No Man's Land a Sanctuary for Nature

Rare species flourish in the tense demilitarized zone. Officials envision a chance for eco-tourism.

March 09, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

CHORWON, South Korea — The birds don't stop for checkpoints. They flap their wings heedlessly over the earthen embankments, trenches, tank barriers and land mines that define the forbidding frontier between the two Koreas and head straight for the demilitarized zone.

In that no man's land, migrating birds have found a unique avian paradise.

The 150-mile-long, 2 1/2-milewide strip severing the peninsula is a favored winter residence for much of the world's population of rare red-crown and white-naped cranes. They are joined by kestrels, geese and black vultures as well as mammals such as Chinese roe deer, wild pigs and an occasional black bear.

Some surveys suggest the presence of endangered Siberian tigers or Amur leopards, although the evidence is about as credible as a sighting of the Loch Ness monster.

Seizing on legends about the exotic flora and fauna of the DMZ, many South Koreans hope that the infamous strip will become better known for its magnificent wildlife than its associations with war. Last month, the Korea National Tourism Organization announced plans for an eco-tourism district next to the zone.

"The natural habitat for these species has been so damaged elsewhere that they all come here. We have birds coming from Siberia and Manchuria, from Japan and Australia," said Kim Kwi Gon, a professor of environmental planning at Seoul National University, who is promoting tourism in what he calls the "international biodiversity belt."

The DMZ is one of the few swaths of the Korean peninsula that has been spared the ravages of the last half-century -- a time capsule, as it were, of Korea's unspoiled environment.

"After a war that killed millions of people, about the only good thing to come out is this sanctuary for wildlife," said Ke Chung Kim, a professor at the Center for BioDiversity Research at Penn State University.

At least initially, tourists would not be allowed into the DMZ -- notwithstanding the half-century that has elapsed since the end of the Korean War, it is still strictly off-limits -- but they would enter a civilian-controlled area just to the south where access is now limited mostly to agricultural workers.

The DMZ already attracts about 3 million tourists each year, but they are mostly fascinated by what is widely billed as the most heavily fortified frontier in the world and the last Cold War border.

Under the proposal, the first destination to be developed for tourism is Chorwon, about 60 miles northeast of Seoul, smack in the middle of the peninsula. On a peak known as Ice Cream Mountain, where the landscape was said to be littered with corpses at the end of the war, tourism officials want to build an observatory for bird watching.

The current lookout, outfitted with coin-operated telescopes to peek into North Korea, could be used equally for watching deer prance in the snow or cranes gliding on their elegant white wings.

No doubt the star attraction is the red-crown crane, whose image adorns countless sake bottles, kimonos, Chinese screens and other forms of Oriental art. The bird is celebrated as a symbol of fidelity, but it is as rare as the virtue it embodies -- the worldwide population having dwindled to an estimated 2,000. About 15% of them live near Chorwon between October and February.

The cranes spend their days in the rice paddies, brown and desolate in late winter. They bob on their long, spindly legs between the dried stalks of rice, feasting on the remains of the harvest. But when the sun drops low, the birds fly over the numerous fortifications and retreat for the night into the marshy underbrush inside the DMZ.

"It is a perfect bedroom for cranes, safe and warm, with no people to bother them," said Yoon Moo Boo, a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul who is one of South Korea's foremost experts on cranes. "Almost everywhere else on the peninsula, the wetlands have been drained."

In South Korea, the birds' habitat has disappeared under gargantuan concrete blocks of apartments and factories. In the North, much of what the land could provide has been eaten or burned for fuel by a desperate populace.

"On one side you have extensive urbanization, and on the other a population so starved that they have ravaged the countryside looking for things to eat," said Caroll Muffett, director of international programs for Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington.

Environmentalists worry that the limited rapprochement between North and South Korea of recent years threatens the wildlife.

A centerpiece of the "sunshine policy" of detente is reconnecting roads and railroads through the DMZ. Hyundai Asan is building a huge industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong, with the idea of attracting South Korean manufacturing firms.

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