Public Awareness

Birds of North Korea in 2023

Dr. Bernhard Seliger (Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea, Birds Korea)

Editorial Assistance by Dominik Mauersberger is gratefully acknowledged.

Birds Korea started – with the first rapid survey of birds in Rason in 2014 – regularly to report also about birds in the Northern part of the Korean Peninsula. While in particular since 2015 the cooperation with Hanns-Seidel-Foundation, Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, WWF, the Ramsar Foundation and EAAFP brought more activities and chances for surveys, the last years, due to the outbreak of Covid and the subsequent decision of North Korean to totally isolate itself, made information about birds in North Korea much less available. Fortunately, even in the time of isolation one can see that North Korea´s Ministry of Land and Environment Protection (MoLEP) together with the State Academy of Sciences (SOAS) and other institutions like the National Conservation Union of Korea (NCUK) still work on wetlands and the protection of species. This article will highlight some of this work and other information in 2023.

In January 2023, the outbreak of Avian Influenza (AI) was a dominant topic regarding animals in North Korean media. Among others, reports focused on the outbreak of AI in Japan[i], Europe[ii] and Latin America.[iii] To focus not on North Korea itself with these disaster news but rather on other countries, is a way, in which North Korea very often familiarizes readers with potential and actually happening disasters, for example with articles on flooding, famine or global warming. Rarely, however, North Korea admits to have its own problems with such occurrences. The more often they report about it abroad, however, the more likely it is that it is also happening in North Korea. January is for ornithologists and conservationists in all of Asia and generally the temperate climate zones and important months for counting wintering birds. One of the most positive developments in the project to bring North Korea to cooperation in the field of conservation is the regular count and sharing of data in the Asian Waterbird Census, which is collected annually by Wetlands International. Beside 2021 (for unknown reasons, maybe related to the severeness of Covid restrictions), North Korea every year send bird counts. The Asian Waterbird Census is a very important tool for scientists as well as conservationists. For East Asia, there is a very informative website as part of the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (, which explains everything about the census, scope, methodology etc. Below you can see the total counts submitted by North Korea. The dramatic decrease of total counts most likely reflects the restrictions of collection of data. Hopefully, from this or next year, this will fully normalize again.

Abb.1: Species count totals by country for the period 2019 – 2023

From the table above, you can also look at single species. For example, in the low counts of 2023 in North Korea only 829 mallards were counted, a year before 10446. Certainly, more training, visits of counts in other countries with a longer and more established tradition of bird counts, and better equipment could improve counts. But the fact that North Korea did participate again in the Asian Waterbird Census remains positive.

In early February, like in each previous year since some time, North Korean media commemorated the “World Wetland Day” in various media.[iv] In the article doing so KCNA revealed among others that “scientists of the Zoology Research Institute and the Biodiversity Institute of the State Academy ofSciences made a survey of more than 30 wetlands and migratory bird reserves including the Mundok Migratory Bird (Wetland) Reserve and the Kumya Migratory Bird (Wetland) Reserve.” Both sites are Flyway Network Sites of the EAAFP. They also announced the previous (2019) production of a booklet on Kumya Wetland had taken place. February saw also more articles on Avian Influenza, one of the about the tragic death of a Cambodian girl from AI.[v] This makes you certainly wonder what kind of losses and damage North Korea itself experienced.

In March, when wintering birds are flying up North, North Korea reported on the Mundok “White crane” (this is the North Korean word for the Red-crowned Crane) habitat.[vi] According to the article in Pyongyang Times, they live “under government protection in the tideland on the estuary of the Chongchon River and the wide plains of Tongnim-ri and Ryongo-ri in Mundok County, South Phyongan Province. The area is an ideal place for food, breeding and inhabitation for the abundance of such plants as reed, cattail, Suaeda japonica, sea blite and Salicornia europaea. The habitat is now under the protection of the nature conservation policy of the DPRK. Over 180 species of migratory birds live there.” Mundok, a Ramsar site, Flyway Network site and in preparation to become a World Heritage Site (on the tentative list) is certainly a showcase for North Korean nature protection and one of the most important stop-over sites for migratory birds. Fortunately, in the years before Covid, the protected area there was more than tripled from 3000 ha to more than 9000 ha. It also has a wetland center and in 2019, a Swan Goose Festival could be celebrated there, co-organized by several international organizations, including Hanns-Seidel-Foundation, with the Ministry of Land and Environment Protection (MoLEP).

In mid-March Naenara, a major North Korean news website, also reported about the winter bird census.[vii] According to that article, researchers of the Biodiversity Institute under the State Academy of Sciences “estimated” (probably surveyed) 63 major wetlands on the East and West coast and inland of North Korea. 25.000 waterbirds of about 50 species were found. Most common were (Greater) White-Fronted Geese, Mallards, Spot-billed Ducks, Goldeneyes, Common Coots and gulls. This fits with observations in the Southern part of the Peninsula. Additionally, the article mentions Swan Geese, Long-tailed ducks, Horned Grebes, Red-crowned Cranes and White-naped Cranes. The account of Swan Geese is interesting, since in the Southern part of the Peninsula, a few can be found in December (several hundreds up to 2000), for example in the Han river estuary, but later, when the coastal areas, where they like to dig for a specific root, are frozen, they often go further South to China. Maybe these were already returnees in February? Another notable report is that of 210 Mute Swans in Kumya Migratory Bird Reserve, a considerable part (though probably not the 50 percent mentioned in the article) of the Northeast Asian population. Interestingly, the 25.000 birds mentioned are almost double that of the count submitted to the AWC. This might be related to counts in February which could not any more enter the AWC or to other reasons.

Mute Swans in Kumya Migratory Bird Reserve
Source: Naenara (15.3.2023)

In April, there were again numerous reports on Avian Influenza around the world.[viii]

May 13 is World Migratory Bird Day. This is another commemorative event which now is regularly appearing in North Korean media. In 2023, the focus of WMBD was the role of clean water, which was also highlighted in Korea. The article also pointed out that among the birds occurring in North Korea are “over 200 species according to seasons. Among them are more than 20 globally-endangered species of migratory birds such as Aythya baeri, spoon-billed sandpipers (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus), spoonbills (Platalea minor), storks (Ciconia boyciana), Far-eastern curlews (Numenius madagascariensis), Great knots (Calidris tenuirostris), Swan geese (Anser cygnoides) and cranes (Grus).In particular, vast areas of wetlands in the West Sea of Korea play a pivotal role in the habitation of such endangered species as spoonbills (Platalea minor),swan geese (Anser cygnoides) and Far-eastern curlews (Numenius madagascariensis), and snipes.”[ix] End of May, an important article in Naenara reports on field surveys the Biodiversity Institute under the State Academy of Sciences did in major wetlands in the migration period (March to May), including Mundok, Kumya, Sindo, Kwangpho and Tongjongho (all but the first and third on the East Coast). According to this article, researchers observed over 125000 waterbirds of 80 species, among them 4000 birds of 10 globally-vulnerable or -endangered species, including Blackfaced Spoonbill, Oriental stork, Far-Eastern Curlew, Swan Geese, Common Pochard, Chinese Egret, Red-crowned Cranes, Hooded Cranes, White-naped Cranes and Saunder´s gull. There were important concentrations (more than one percent on the global or regional level) of Tundra Bean Goose, Mallard, Spot-billed Duck, Common Coot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Far-Eastern Curlew, Dunlin and Terek Sandpiper.[x]

An article in Pyongyang Times on biodiversity conservation
Source: Pyongyang Times

In early June 2023, North Korea issued a new set of stamps depicting the (Oriental) magpie as the national bird of Korea. According to KCNA, these birds are called birds of fortune among the Korean people, living in harmony with people in the countryside.[xi]

Oriental Magpie – National Bird of Korea June 2023
Source: Korea Stamp Corp.

While North Korea often depicts birds on stamps, as well as other animals, plants or landscapes, it is interesting that they seem to have changed the national bird (or maybe, just added a second one), since until a year before, it had rather been the Northern Goshawk. Only a year before, an article in Voice of Korea detailed: “From olden times, Korean ancestors regarded goshawk, clever, nimble and brave, as a dear and intimate bird, widely using it for hunting. It is proved well through the fact that goshawk was reflected on many fine art works, proverbs, historical stories, poems and folk songs. Among the pictures drawn with animals as subjects in the past, the picture of goshawk is one of the fine art works with relatively diversified genres and many legacies left. As the goshawk took after the disposition of the nation, the Korean ancestors drew it in their fine art pieces more than other birds. Goshawk loved by the Korean people for a long time was designated as the national bird of the DPRK in 2008.”[xii]

Still a national bird? The Goshawk as national bird in a publication of 2020
Photo: Hanns Seidel Foundation

In early June, an article in Rodong Sinmun discussed the role of wetlands for a healthy environment.[xiii]

In July, the website Uriminzokkiri brought an interview with two researchers of the Biodiversity Institute under the State Academy of Sciences, Ri Chung Song and  Ryu Kum Hyok, about the role of biodiversity for sustainable environmental, but also economic development. Among others they stress they are member of the Convention on Biodiversity, they talked about several measures of biodiversity protection (like planting trees and bringing more than a million of young fry of the Alaska pollock into the sea), and highlighted the National Wetland Inventory of 2018.

In August 2023, North Korea was one topic of the IUCN International Goose Specialist Group meeting in Ulaan-Baatar, Mongolia. The 20th meeting, of the IUCN Goose Specialist Group brought together around 100 experts from around the globe to discuss both the species- and habitat-related issues. All in all, geese are an example for quite successful efforts – some goose species like Greylag Geese, but also Greater White-Fronted Geese, saw huge increases in numbers over the last decades, none the least due to more sustainable hunting practice. Others, like the Brent geese, are not globally, but locally threatened. In the meantime, regular meetings and international cooperation led to a vastly improved understanding of the ecology of the birds. Hanns-Seidel-Foundation was among the sponsors of the meeting. A number of interesting presentations dealt with the migratory routes of brent geese, the situation of geese in South Korea, and the conservation of geese in countries neighboring Korea. Yusuke Sawa of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, Abiko, Chiba, Japan talked about “Migratory routes and population status of brent goose in East Asia”. Northeast Asia has only a rather small population estimated to be only 8,700 birds and little information is available for their migration. Since 2017 Japan equipped 67 birds with transmitters. While now there seems to be better information on migration routes, still the traveling route of birds in DPRK is in the dark. Observations on the ground show Brent Geese in Rason to Wonsan – from there, they might migrate through the Korean Peninsula to China.

Discussing Geese in North Korea in the IUCN International Goose Specialist Group meeting in Ulaan-Baatar, Mongolia, August 2023 (Photo: Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea)

North Korea is probably one of the most under-research areas on the East Asian Australasian flyway, due to difficulties to enter the country and to survey the country, as Hyun-Ah Choi and Bernhard Seliger discussed. However, in the early 2000s and then again from 2015, there were increasing possibilities to do some kind of research, related to the accession of North Korea to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (2017) and the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (2018). Important research on waders and Anatidae included a study on Swan Geese in Mundok, establishing Mundok as a prime stopover area of the globally vulnerable species. This is related to the still largely intact tidal flats in the Korean West Sea (Yellow Sea). While North Korea like its neighbors China and South Korea does some large reclamation projects, progress is slow due to the lack of machinery. Currently, when the damage done to the ecology and the very limited – if at all – economic benefit of reclamation becomes visible in South Korea and China, there is still time to prevent larger damage to be done in North Korea. For this, work on the preservation of tidal flats is necessary, including capacity development of environmental decision makers and specialists in North Korea. One very encouraging factor is that Mundok recently has been prepared as a potential candidate for UNESCO World Heritage, which gives hope for even higher recognition nationally and better protection of the area.

There are still a lot of open research questions regarding geese in North Korea; there is a lack of knowledge and observations on less numerous geese and vagrants observed in the South, but not North Korea, there is a lack of knowledge on the exact migratory routes, few is known on wintering geese (since winter is the time when visits to the North are most difficult) etc.[xiv]

In September 2023, an article in Rodong Sinmun talked about the role of shrinking forests in reducing biodiversity.[xv] While the focus was rather on tropical rain forests, it is the stark reality in North Korea that maybe half of the once ubiquitous forests are degraded or completely disappeared, this also had a massive influence on the possibilities of small passerines to migrate and breed and is an important loss of habitats for Korean forest birds.

In October 2023, Naenara featured a short article describing the Zoology Institute under the State Academy of Sciences, established in 1966, which is located in Pyongyang and “engages in a comprehensive study for protection and propagation, management and sustainable use of animal resources in the country. It has animal taxonomy, animal ecology, and science and information labs. It has surveyed the distribution of fauna in the country and the flyways of migratory birds and conducted the work of setting the Paektusan Biosphere Reserve and other nature reserves, thus making a tangible contribution to implementing the state’s policy on protecting animals.”[xvi]

An introduction to Mundok Migratory Bird Reserve (a Flyway Network Site and a Ramsar Site) in a North Korean publication in October 2023
Source: Kumsugangsan

In November 2023, Pyongyang Times featured an article on occasion of the International Day for Biosphere Reserves. [xvii] It stressed that between 1989 and 2018, the DPRK registered Mts Paektu, Kuwol, Myohyang, Chilbo and Kumgang as biosphere reserves. According to the article, there are regular surveys of biodiversity and the environment in these reserves, including Mt. Chilbo. To see these in more detailed certainly would be very interesting, given the relative lack of data for this area. Also, the article mentions regular assessment of seabird reserves, another issue where more information would be very valuable.

In December, an article in Naenara focused on the surveys of Swan Geese in North Korea.[xviii] This kind of article is very interesting, since they also feature several photos of birds and landscapes.

Swan Geese in Mundok in late 2023

Source: Naenara

Certainly, only to follow North Korea´s media to learn about its birds has a lot of limitations. While the awareness raising function of commemorating various days (World Migratory Bird Day, World Wetland Day etc.) is laudable, very often there is only general information, not detailed information on North Korea´s situation. Therefore, we can only hope that from next year we can again go to North Korea and see something about the situation on the ground. To cooperate with the Ministry of Land and Environment Protection, the State Academy of Sciences and the National Conservation Union of Korea, three main players in biodiversity protection in North Korea, remains an important, and hopefully achievable goal for 2024.

[i] Rodong Sinmun (03.01.2023), Rodong Sinmun (04.01.2023), Rodong Sinmun (06.01.2023), Rodong Sinmun (22.01.2023), Rodong Sinmun (27.01.2023).
[ii] Rodong Sinmun (05.01.2023), Rodong Sinmun (07.01.2023).
[iii] Rodong Sinmun (18.01.2023).
[iv] KCNA (2.2.2023), Naenara (02.02.2023).
[v] Rodong Sinmun (26.02.2023).
[vi] Pyongyang Times (04.03.2023).
[vii] Naenara (15.03.2023).
[viii] Rodong Sinmun (01.04.2023), Rodong Sinmun (06.04.2023), Rodong Sinmun (10.04.2023).
[ix] Naenara (13.05.2023).
[x] Naenara (30.05.2023).
[xi] KCNA (05.06.2023).
[xii] Voice of Korea (12.03.2022).
[xiii] Rodong Sinmun (01.06.2023).
[xiv] Birds Korea Blog (26.09.2023).
[xv] Rodong Sinmun (24.09.2023).
[xvi] Naenara (10.2023).
[xvii] Pyongyang Times (04.11.2023).
[xviii] Naenara (01.12.2023).

Birds Korea Blog. “Some observations on the status and conservation of geese in DPRK.” 26.09.2023. Unter URL: (Accessed 05.04.2024) “Activity for Protection of Wetlands Brisk in DPRK.” 02.02.2023.
KCNA. “New Stamps Depict Magpie, National Bird of Korea.” 05.06.2023. unter URL: (Accessed 05.04.2024)
Naenara. “Protection of Wetlands for Human and Nature.” 02.02.2023.
Naenara. “Survey of Waterbird Resources in Winter Conducted.” 15.03.2023.
Naenara. “Wetland reserves for Migratory Birds.” 13.05.2023.
Naenara. “Field Survey of Major Migratory Bird Reserves in Spring Conducted.” 30.05.2023.
Naenara. “Zoology Institute.” 24.05.2023. unter URL: (Accessed 16.11.2023, by now deleted)
Naenara. “Bird Sanctuaries Surveyed to Confirm Number of Anser Cygnoides.” 01.12.2023.
Pyongyang Times. “Mundok white crane habitat.” 04.03.2023.
Pyongyang Times. “International Day for Biosphere Reserves.” 04.11.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Outbreak of avian flu.” 03.01.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Spread of the avian flu.” 04.01.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Infectious disease spreading.” 05.01.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Avian Influenza Continues to Occur.” 06.01.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Spread of the avian flu.” 07.01.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Health emergency declared due to spread of avian flu.” 18.01.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Outbreak of avian flu.” 22.01.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Avian Influenza Continues to Occur.” 27.01.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Loss of life due to avian flu.” 26.02.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Outbreak of the avian flu.” 01.04.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Spread of the avian flu.” 06.04.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Outbreak of the avian flu.” 10.04.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Negatively effects on human survival due to the destruction of wetlands.” 01.06.2023.
Rodong Sinmun. “Shrinking forests area, destruction of biodiversity.” 24.09.2023.
Voice of Korea. “National bird of Korea,“ 12.03.2022

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