Paradise in No Man’s Land

The Korean DMZ Is One of the Most Heavily Fortified Borders in the World — And a Sanctuary for the Peninsula’s Flora and Fauna


The dragon does not usually receive visitors in winter, but we went anyway. We left the jeep parked at an empty guard post on a dirt road edged with barbed wire. Landmine warning signs hung on the fence. The five of us hiked downward in knee-deep snow into the bowl-shaped valley, then passed through a thicket of royal azalea and Mongolia oak heavy with hoarfrost and last night’s snowfall. We emerged to behold the Dragon Moors. The entire scene was frozen over — the flowers, the herbs, and the mythical dragon that was thought to rest in the dark swamp water. In the distance, we could see the snow-covered mountains of North Korea.

As the first American journalist to come to the Dragon Moors, I was asked why I wanted to visit this particular region of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). In the entire length of the 154-mile long DMZ, the Dragon Moors is perhaps the most ecologically pure area. It is the only alpine wetland in Korea, and has been designated a “wetland of international importance.” Located 3,900 feet above sea level on Daeam Mountain, it is composed of two peat bogs that have formed over the last 5,000 years. The wetland holds botanical specimens that cannot be seen anywhere else in Korea: prairie sphagnum, meadowsweet, Siberian geraniums, pitcher plants, sundew, buckbean, rushes, two-flower violet, Arctic starflower, catchfly, and Hanabusaya asiatica, an endangered perennial herb.

Accompanying me on the hike was Sergeant Kwon Tae-hyung, a liaison between the South Korean and American armies. He hadn’t left his urban Seoul office for the duration of his military service, and it was his first trip to the DMZ. At the camp near Daeam Mountain, we met Second Lieutenant Kwon So-young, the 21st infantry division’s public affairs officer. She had been stationed at the camp for only two weeks and had never been to the Dragon Moors; therefore we needed a guide, First Lieutenant Yang Jeong-hwan, who knew his way around the area and had visited the wetlands before. Also along was a photographer for the army newspaper. Heading up to the mountain wetlands in winter was a good story for him.

Before driving up the mountain, Lt. Yang said, “I don’t think the Dragon wetland will be very impressive for you. There are none of the birds here that the DMZ is known for. It’s all frozen over and nothing is up there.”

He was partially correct. We observed no birds at this elevation, and the only sign of animals was a set of rabbit tracks near the road. But for everyone it was an impressive landscape, a serene winter wonderland high atop the Korean mountains. When President Bill Clinton visited the DMZ in 2003, he called it “the scariest place on Earth.” But he visited only the forward area near Panmunjeom, where Cold War tensions are played up. He did not visit a place like the Dragon Moors, where soldiers overlook a frozen, foggy mountainscape of great peacefulness and natural beauty.

The first thing to understand about the Korean DMZ is that it is not simply a chain link fence with a South Korean soldier staring down a North Korean soldier on the other side. It is not like the Berlin Wall or Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall or the Maginot Line. It is bigger than all of those combined. The DMZ is a maze of buffers and limit lines, of fences and checkpoints and dirt roads with warning signs to civilians telling them not to enter or they will face punishment. Inside the DMZ are abandoned ruins, family graves, and an old fortress. It stretches from the tidal flats of Ganghwa Island on the western coast through abandoned farmland and meadows, crossing and encompassing streams and reservoirs, and traversing mountain after mountain until it reaches the eastern coast near Goseong, where the most beautiful beach in all of Korea has not seen a civilian footprint in more than 50 years.

Much of the literature written about the Korean DMZ includes a half-truth that refers to it as an ecological paradise that has been untouched for the past half century. It is untouched by the civilian world, but the military has controlled the area with impunity since the lines were drawn in the 1953 armistice.

In 1999, the Ministry of Defense revealed that Agent Orange and Monuron were sprayed intensively during the late 1960s. One soldier reported seeing pools of dead fish after the application. Other military actions have altered the habitat of the DMZ. Both North and South militaries burn brush to keep a clear view of their enemy. These not-so-controlled burns sometimes get out of hand. In 2000, there were 19 fires in the DMZ that scorched 91,676 acres of land and detonated 703 landmines. In 2005, a fire started by the North spread across the DMZ and into the South near Goseong. Three hundred villagers were evacuated.

The mission of soldiers serving on the DMZ is to defend their nation first, and then to fight boredom second. Five years ago, a senior engineer at one of Korea’s largest shipbuilding yards told me that when he was a soldier putting in his time in the DMZ, he and his buddies would hunt sluice ring-necked pheasants with their assault rifles.

A vice president at a large Korean corporate conglomerate, who does not wish to be named because his actions 30 years ago would probably reflect poorly on a man of his position, told me that when he was a young officer serving on the DMZ near Hwacheon, he would toss hand grenades into the nearby creek and the explosion would kill or stun the fish. He would then order his subordinates to wade downstream to collect them as they floated by. They made a spicy fish chowder with their catch. There is a good chance they were lenok, a kind of trout native to the Korean peninsula and the coldwater streams that flow through the DMZ.

The days of poaching pheasants and bombing trout streams are presumably over. A single gunshot fired in the DMZ now makes national headlines. In August 2007, North Korean soldiers shot at a South Korean guard post in Inje County to the west of the Dragon Moors. The South Korean soldiers fired 10 warning shots back. No one was injured. Almost exactly a year before that, shots were fired one evening, hitting a guard post in nearby Yanggu County. Southern soldiers returned fire, and that was all.

Today, soldiers are more likely to try helping wildlife than to harm it. One South Korean unit is known for feeding leftovers to families of wild boars, and reporting poachers to game authorities. At Hyangro Peak, soldiers with the best throwing arms are selected to chuck cabbages over a high fence to feed gorals, a species of mountain goat that is actually classified as an antelope.

Hardly any other ecosystem has been written about so much, yet visited or explored by so few. There is a dearth of scientific field research because access is tightly controlled by the military and because of the 1.8 million landmines scattered throughout the DMZ. Although the DMZ is often described by the Korean press as being a treasure trove of rare species, this is mostly an exaggeration.

Most creatures living within the DMZ are abundant throughout the rest of South Korea. This past autumn, while hiking near cities and countryside villages throughout South Korea, I’ve seen water deer and roe deer, wild boar tracks and wallows, leopard cats, raccoon dogs, swimming otters, badger dens, Siberian weasels, Korean hares, and many of the birds that are free to flitter over the high fences of the DMZ. If anything, wildlife may be more plentiful south of the DMZ because of farm crops to raid, more cover and range because of greenbelt laws, and better genetic diversity than their trapped and inbreeding cousins in the DMZ.

But the fact is, nobody knows what exactly lurks in the wooded hills of the DMZ. The Siberian tiger and the Amur leopard, two of the world’s most endangered big cats, may be living in the DMZ, but no substantial evidence of this exists. There are three other large mammals residing in the DMZ: the Asiatic black bear, the goral, and the musk deer. But these species also have populations that are scattered throughout the rest of South Korea, and there is scant field research on these mammals’ numbers and whereabouts in the DMZ.

DMZ6.tifJames CardIn a place like the Dragon Moors, soldiers overlook a frozen,
foggy mountainscape of great peacefulness and natural beauty.

Besides the native species of the DMZ, there are non-native ones, too.
A study done in 2006 by the DMZ Ecosystem Joint Research Team reported that the environment of the DMZ is threatened by numerous non-native plants, feral housecats, and American largemouth bass. Tom Walker, an American civilian ammunition specialist and bass angler who lived in Korea for 10 years, told me about a lake located in the DMZ area that is purported to be the mother lode of bass in Korea. “I was fortunate to be able to enter the area because of my clearance and my Korean counterpart having influence with the Korean military,” Walker says. “Fishing is only done at night and only by the Korean military since the lake is in view of the North Korea observation tower. The lake spills out into a broad valley area of rice paddies, and in the spring, small bass are visible throughout the shallow paddy water flow ditches.”

The resident fauna of the DMZ — be they common or rare or non-native — have visitors every year. Migratory birds flying from their Mongolian and Siberian nesting grounds use the DMZ as a key stopover. The most honored guests are the endangered white-naped, red-crowned, and hooded cranes that rely on the DMZ as a critical resting and wintering site.

According to Dr. George Archibald, founder of International Crane Foundation, the numbers of white-naped and red-crowned cranes are in decline. The majestic birds are trapped between war and peace. If another Korean War were to break out, their habitat would be devastated. If relations between North and South Korea warm further, then the forces of development will likely pave over their resting sites. Already, their critical habitat is under siege by the farmers in the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), who see the cranes as a threat to their crops. Besides poisoning the cranes, farmers plow under their rice fields, preventing the cranes from feeding on waste grain. The proliferation of greenhouses is destroying other land that otherwise could be used for nesting.

In 2005, media mogul and conservation philanthropist Ted Turner participated in a discussion organized by the DMZ Forum, a non-government organization dedicated to preserving the DMZ’s natural legacy. “As a result of the meeting, a plan to protect migratory cranes while also engaging local communities in sustainable agricultural practices was developed,” wrote Devon Finley of Turner Foundation to me in an e-mail. The foundation granted $150,000 toward the initiative, one of the largest private donations ever for conservation of the DMZ environment.

Meanwhile, South Korean scientists and government officials are lobbying for the DMZ to be deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Transboundary Biosphere Reserve, which would protect the DMZ from development. However, North Korea shares the DMZ boundary, and its view on the subject has been lukewarm at best. Without support from North Korea, there will be no such designation.

The development pressures are real — and growing. There are economic forces within South Korea that desperately want the land opened for use. There is a saying in South Korea that government bureaucrats cannot sleep when they see vacant land. Right now, the government officials of the counties along the DMZ are restless.

Eco-Sign.tifJames CardAlthough the DMZ is threatened by development on its southern edge,
it will remain a wildlife preserve to some extent even if the North and South
finally make their peace.

In 2001, the Korea National Tourism Organization mapped out the development of tourism sites in the counties that abut the DMZ. These counties are now seeking to use visions of peace and ecotourism to fill their community coffers. Inje County has a plan for the “DMZ Peace and Life Garden,” a $15 million resort along the military lines. A coalition of counties near the DMZ is petitioning the national government and the military to open up the nearest boundary, the CCZ, for development.

Some development is already occurring, as local military commanders arbitrarily grant building permits with no concern for land use patterns or environmental impact. In the late 1990s, there was only farmland at the confluence of the Han and Imjin Rivers along the DMZ. Now there are surreal villages of prefab American-style vacation homes. Real estate speculators are talking about a rash of development involving golf courses, amusement parks, housing complexes, a nuclear waste disposal site, and industrial parks.

“It is ridiculous,” says Seo Jae-cheol, an official of the environmental group Green Korea. “One side of the government calls for the protection of the environment, and the other pushes for the development plan. The government bodies should examine the issue together and reach an agreement.”

Although the southern edge of the DMZ is threatened by development, the DMZ will remain a wildlife preserve to some extent even if North and South Korea finally make their peace — or if North Korean society collapses. In either scenario, the DMZ will become something like the US-Mexico border, a collection of walls and fences designed to prevent a flood of 20 million North Korean refugees from streaming to the affluent South.

To South Koreans, the DMZ remains the final frontier, the last wild land in an otherwise crowded country. Even when hiking in the mountains of South Korea, it’s almost impossible to get lost — you simply hike up a hill and look for the lights of the nearest town, or for a cell phone tower, or a string of power lines. No true wilderness is left, even in the national parks. On a satellite photograph taken at night of the Korean peninsula, South Korea is lit up like an over-decorated Christmas tree. The light pollution is so great that it’s difficult to see stars unless you are far out in the countryside.

The view of North Korea is starkly different. The capital of Pyongyang is a firefly speck, and the rest of the country is shrouded in darkness. The blackness, and the wilderness, begin at the DMZ.

James Card has lived in South Korea since 1996. His writing about Korea has appeared in Foreign Policy, National Geographic News, Salon, the Guardian Weekly, and other publications. When not fly-fishing for Manchurian trout, he is at work on a book about his explorations of the Korean countryside.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.