North Korea has been in the news a lot lately thanks to its Supreme Commander Kim Jong-un’s Trump-like ability to whip the media into a frenzy. But what most journalists seem to be overlooking in their Korean coverage is something far newsworthier than just another trash-talking power-tripping politico. Namely, the unexpected wildlife wonderland that’s sprung up in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
Measuring 4km wide and 238km long, with an area of nearly 1035km2, this infamous swath of land buffering the two nations was established in 1953 following the Korean War and has been a virtual no-go zone since. Former US President Bill Clinton wasn’t joking when he called it the most dangerous place on earth: not only is it strewn with landmines, it’s heavily fortified on either side with barbed wire and hyper-vigilant patrols of armed soldiers.
But that’s precisely what makes the DMZ such an ecological sanctuary. Left to their own devices in this lush, human-free zone, some 3,000 species of animals and plants are flourishing in its marshes and mountains, lakes and forests.
Critters long believed to be extinct, vulnerable or rare in the region have been spotted: red-crowned and white-naped cranes, musk deer, Amur gorals (a type of goat) and Asiatic black bears, to name a few. There’ve even been sightings of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards, both critically endangered. Meanwhile, an estimated 1,600 species of vascular plants and 300 species of mushrooms, fungi and lichen are sprouting like there’s no tomorrow.
Of course, the same inaccessibility that makes the DMZ such a natural haven also makes it impossible to pin down exact figures. Most data, such as it is, is based on studies done in the Civilian Control Zone, a restricted section on the southern boundary. But experts concur that the area’s biodiversity is incredibly rich.
Not to mention incredibly precious. With recent hopes of unification between the Koreas, the question arises: what will become of this accidental paradise once it’s no longer out of bounds? Ironically, peace in Korea is more of a threat to the DMZ’s thriving biodiversity than hostility.
Photography: (top) Tae-young / iStock; (bottom) Christopher John SSF