Since the early months of 2018, diplomacy has energized inter-Korean engagement. Spurred by the high tensions created by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and increased expediency throughout 2016 and 2017, inter-Korean diplomacy has prioritized the creation of permanent peace on the peninsula. Initiatives to support this renewed engagement have focused on the interconnectivity of the North and South, through consideration of reconnecting transport links, tourism opportunities and economic cooperation. Whilst these efforts do provide a practical focus for the broader effort to support the development of peace on the peninsula, they must also ensure they are progressed within an environmental and ecological framing.
Although the North’s nuclear and missile program and other military provocations have often been the the catalyst of diplomatic efforts to resolve these tensions, the cause of the challenge lies much deeper. The pursuit of such weapons and desire to bolster security in this way is ideological and grounded in the Korean war. When the war ended in 1953, it was concluded not with a peace treaty to formally close the conflict, but with an armistice agreement. This agreement divided the Korean peninsula, creating two nations. The armistice split the peninsula at the 38th parallel, creating a 4 kilometer buffer zone between the north and south, called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Since 1953, the strip of land that makes up the DMZ has been relatively untouched, allowing plants and animals — in some cases rare species — to grow and thrive. Although still plagued with unexploded land-mines, the DMZ has become an accidental ecological haven. The South Korean Ministry of Environment reports that this area is inhabited by over 5,000 species, including 106 protected species. Most recently, cameras in the DMZ caught images of a rare Asiatic Black Bear cub making its way across a stream. Although soldiers had previously reported sightings of bears in the area, this was the first time these animals were caught on camera.
As inter-Korean engagement is prioritized on the peninsula again, questions are raised around ways to deconflict the ongoing efforts to increase inter-Korean connectivity with the preservation of the DMZ as an ecological haven. This thinking has been present in South Korean conservation policy, recognizing the DMZ as an ecologically important area that should be protected, but more needs to be done to reconcile this with calls for increasing development and connectivity.
As part of efforts to pursue peace on the peninsula and create a new era of relations, South Korean initiatives have included expanded tours of the DMZ to develop three new hiking trails, expressed intentions to turn the DMZ into a “peace park,” a survey of a railway connection between the North and South to assess what efforts would be required to put this back into service, and similar scoping activities for roads. Although efforts to develop a more peaceful era of relations on the peninsula should be actively encouraged, these efforts do also raise concerns around how serious the conservation considerations are. Last year, North and South Korean jointly conducted survey of the railway lines to assess what efforts would need to be taken to get these fully operational again. Given the prominence of including physical links between the two Koreas in the peace process, it raises the question of whether increased engagement, and possibly eventual reunification, could be successful without encroaching on the environmental haven of the DMZ. All of these efforts, whilst helping to reduce the risk of military conflict through engagement and cooperation, also risk damaging the inadvertent conservation of the DMZ that has taken place. This concern has been reported before, with the construction of the highway to Mount Kumgang from South Korea thought to have been harmful to the DMZ’s crane population.
Although only in a trial phase, the new hiking routes raise similar questions about the future of the environmental protection of the DMZ. It is estimated that over 1 million people visit the DMZ through organized tours each year from the South side. Given the curiosity about North Korea and international media attention following provocation and diplomacy, an additional opportunity to visit and hike through the DMZ will likely only increase the number of visitors, with the new trails already proving to be extremely popular. Whilst every effort can be made to ensure that these hikes are environmentally conscious, the increase of people to the areas and infrastructure required to support that increase will not occur without environmental impact.
Questions remain over how to ensure that these efforts are complementary to the DMZ environment, but ultimately ask what will be prioritized when conservation and environmental protection come into conflict with the peace process. In the past, the South Korean government has pushed for the DMZ to have UNESCO special status to ensure the protection of the DMZ. This designation would protect the DMZ and surrounding areas as a biosphere reserve. In 2012, a previous South Korean application to UNESCO failed, partly because of a lack of ability to limit development in the surrounding areas. Current South Korean President Moon has put UNESCO protection of the DMZ on the agenda again. However, if such action is to support the peace process, it must be taken as a cooperative initiative with the North, and to mitigate the failings of the previous bid ensure it is accompanied by sufficient plans to manage enhanced cross-border cooperation and engagement. A joint bid for protecting the DMZ could be advantageous not just for the environment and wildlife, but the opportunity to continue to build cross border relationships and could lead to the creation of inter-Korean conservation teams. Joint bids have precedent for Korea; in 2018 two separate bids from the North and South were merged to give ssireum/ssirum, a type of traditional Korean wrestling, UNESCO cultural heritage status.
To ensure protection in both the short and long term, the two Koreas should prioritize joint environmental projects in the region. Environmental protection in the short term is likely more manageable, but the longer-term efforts of interconnectivity and possibly reunification pose much larger challenges. By protecting the DMZ jointly, the foundations can be laid to help ensure that this protection is recognized irrespective of the future make-up of the peninsula. Not only will this ensure the longevity of the DMZ as an ecological safe-zone, but create opportunities for the two Koreas to build relations together for the benefit of peninsula. Bidding for UNESCO special status jointly could be a good place to start, and help bring the environment to the forefront of the efforts to increase inter-Korean engagement in support of peace.
Cristina Varriale is a Research Fellow with in Proliferation and Nuclear Policy at RUSI, where she focuses on North Korea’s WMD programs, North/South Korea relations, U.S. extended deterrence in East Asia and disarmament diplomacy in the NPT.