Sunday, June 27, 2010

Korean DMZ: A Wildlife Haven Behind Barbed Wire

The Korean War started on June 25, 1950. Sixty years later, on June 25, we stood inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with a delegation from Pasadena, which has a “Friendship City” relationship with the South Korean city of Paju (37°46'), on the edge of the DMZ. The Pasadena delegation included Alan Lamson and Jane Hallinger as well as Dr. Yung Nam, a Korean-American dentist, who has organized and was dedicating a dental Peace Clinic for residents of the DMZ on this special anniversary. This celebration was at a school in the Civilian Control Area, but plans are to provide another clinic at the Daeseong-dong village (37 °57'N) inside the DMZ. Until we were invited to join this effort, we had no idea that any people actually lived in that zone (controlled by the United Nations), but both South and North Korea maintain small villages within the otherwise closed off land. Most of the 30 students at the Daeseong-dong Elementary School honored us with a drum performance (see the short video clip).They have established pen-pal relationships with a school in Pasadena. This was a unique opportunity for us to enter the DMZ itself, something most tourists cannot do, and made possible by our new friends from Pasadena and our “friendship city” hosts in Paju..
The DMZ is a 150 mile long and 2.5 mile wide strip of land across the Korean Peninsula, more or less following the 38th parallel. With people excluded for 60 years, the land became a haven for wildlife. Behind the barbed wire, many endangered species are thriving, an ironic peaceful outcome from war. The estuary region of the Han and Imjin Rivers and the tideland and riparian vegetation zones are particularly valuable wetlands landscapes for animals. The once ravaged landscape is now green and lush.
Black-capped Kingfisher
The Paju City organizers, understanding our special interest in environmental issues along the 38th parallel, arranged a tour inside the Civilian Control Area along the edge of the DMZ with the DMZ Ecological Research Institute. Jung Rok An is a student at the Korea University in Seoul, only 20 years old, but an eloquent and knowledgeable researcher and organizer of environmental education efforts. He started the DMZ Ecology Research Institute ( along with his father and Mr. Kim, a school teacher, and they now train teams of high school students in research techniques. After a year of orientation and field camps, the students pick projects related to the ecology of the DMZ. We joined a group from 3 highs schools in Seoul on their first day of orientation; on that same day, two other groups , one a full year into their studies, and another group of elementary school students, were taken inside the area by the Institute. At the end of the day, some of the more experienced group shared their thoughts and hopes for the future on our tape recorder...fascinating quotes that we will eventually share in our book. They all hoped that this special place, full of cranes, geese, kingfishers and a host of other birds and mammals, will still be protected, even after the longed-for day comes when peace between the two Koreas opens up this landscape to humans once again. (Our thanks to Julia Kim for permission to use her photo of the egret behind barbed wire)