Nature Burgeons in Unnatural DMZ

April 10th, 2008 - by admin

Lee Hyo-won / The Korean Times – 2008-04-10 22:35:56

(April 8, 2008) — Stretching 248 kilometers across the heart of the Korean peninsula, 2 kilometers north and 2 kilometers south, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the last remnant of the Cold War — a stuffed specimen of division.

But in this land marking the unnatural divide of a people, nature flourishes. The DMZ is a treasured ecological site and a natural reserve for wildlife. Due to its unique plant and animal life, it is a place of interest among ecologists around the world. The book “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman explores this untouched land and more recently, “GP506,” a homegrown thriller movie set in the area, finds inspiration in its mysterious flora and fauna.

“Wildlife in the DMZ” is a special TV documentary by MBC producer Choe Sam-gyu. In late 2006, Choe and his team embarked on a historical journey to film the DMZ coast-to-coast.

Wild animals and plants that inhabit the DMZ area are caught on high definition (HD) cameras. In the west end, “jeombagimulbeom” (spotted seal, Natural Treasure No. 331) sunbathe near Baekryeong Island. To the east, a school of “yeolmokeo” (Brachymystax lenok), a freshwater cousin of the salmon, fights the current to move up the Myungpa River, freely traveling between the two Koreas.

But land animals are, like Koreans, bound. The book and documentary describe a chance encounter between two “sanyang” (Manchurian goral, Treasure No. 217). Two of these solitary, goat-like animals were spotted staring at each other across the fence — a divided nation, a divided people and divided animals.

At night, “suribueongi” (eagle-owl, Treasure No. 324-2) reign. The documentary won awards at the International Wildlife and Environmental Film Festival and Chicago International Film and TV Festival.

Documenting the DMZ
The book of the same title transfers the TV documentary into words and vivid photographs. But it goes beyond the scope of the nature documentary (which is included in a two-disc DVD set) and provides an in-depth historical sketch of the area. The author, Choe Yang Hyun-jin, paints a portrait of the DMZ complete with excerpts from various poems, essays, new articles and songs.

The 38th Parallel was drawn in the summer of 1953, sans South Korea. “There were only two Korean reporters present, while there were over 100 from UN nations and over 10 from Japan,” the author quotes Choe Byung-woo, one of the two Korean reporters present at the signing of the armistice. “Once again, the destiny of Korea was mapped without Korea,” said the former Korea Times editor-in-chief, and the one and only martyred war correspondent.

While the book is at once informative, insightful and even poetic, a much more detailed map of the area and an index would have been helpful. Nevertheless it includes a comprehensive introduction of the cultural monuments that lie scattered around the iron belt. Tombs of ancient kings bear war wounds, with tombstones marred by bullets.

There stands Seungil Bridge, an unintended North-South “collaboration.” In 1948, the North started building a bridge in Cheolwon, Gangwon Province, but construction came to a halt with the onset of the Korean War (1950-53). After the war, the area became part of South Korea and the bridge was completed in 1958. Coincidence or not, the bridge’s name corresponds to the first syllable of the first names of the Koreas’ leaders at the time, “seung” for Syngman Rhee and “il” for Kim Il-Sung.

When word got out that Pyongyang was building a dam in Mt. Geumgang — supposedly a scheme to flood Seoul — Seoul immediately responded to the potential hostility by building its own dam in Hwacheon. Costing 400 billion won and ironically named “Peace,” the dam fails to function properly and forever changed the local ecosystem.

Nature Takes Its Course
High above, the sky is the limit, or limitless. This no man’s land is a haven for rare birds, such as small flocks of “durumi” (Grus japonesis, Treasure No. 202) and its cousin, “jaedurumi” (Grus vipor, Treasure No. 203). Swan-like “gaeri” (Treasure No. 325) can be spotted near waterholes.

The DMZ is also a place cohabitated by humans and endangered wildlife. Stationed soldiers helped malnourished eagles (Treasure No. 243), with fruitful results. But questions remain as to how humans and the wild coexist.

“No matter how unyielding winter may be, spring arrives without fail within nature’s set timeframe. Migratory birds prepare to leave and soldiers and nearby residents (near the civilian passage restriction line) get ready for another year.

“By the road, sagebrush sprouts peep out shyly and cautiously. The delicate leaves taking root in the frost testify to the marvels of life and much more.

“However, spring has not yet arrived on the DMZ. Once the iron curtain is lifted and the Koreas reunited, springtime will bloom,” writes the author (pp. 265-266).

Kevin Maddog Stewart

• Project Mkono website

• Growing a Truffula Forest blog:

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