Some thoughts on the chances and threats of preservation of the Han River Estuary

Dr. Bernhard Seliger and Dr. Choi Hyun-Ah (both Hanns-Seidel-Foundation Korea and Birds Korea)

When Koreans talk about the “miracle of the Han River”, they refer to the stellar economic growth catapulting South Korea from being one of the poorest countries of the world to one of the richest. But, there is also another “miracle of the Han River”: though the division of the country has been a source of sorrow for Korea ever since 1945, the military confrontation at the inner-Korean border had a completely unplanned, but nevertheless important effect of preservation of important habitats which elsewhere have long disappeared in South Korea. Once ubiquitous, the rice field areas with few human structures like ginseng fields with plastic covers, hothouses and small agro-industries, which are incredibly rich in biodiversity, where better preserved here than elsewhere. Additionally, protected by a fence built to keep intruders from the North out, large and unspoilt reed bed areas are another very important habitat elsewhere widely reduced and degraded. It is no wonder then, that the area became a refuge for a number of endangered species or species in decline, as a survey of Hanns-Seidel-Foundation Korea – carried out partly together with Birds Korea – showed in the past half year (see the article in the bird sightings section).
So, should we be happy about Korean division and hope that the “protection through division” goes on forever? This cannot be the wish of anyone, given the tremendous human costs, military confrontation brings to the Korean Peninsula and the world. It is no wonder, then, that in particular the administrations along the border zone, including Gimpo, are eager to plan for a more peaceful future and welcomed strongly the more peaceful mood on the Korean peninsula since early 2018. This was the reason why Gimpo asked Hanns-Seidel-Foundation to carry out the environmental survey and make recommendations for the future of the area. With the more peaceful mood on the Korean Peninsula since 2018, also plans for the peaceful use and development of the border area in this region, the Hangang estuary, have been discussed by the adjacent local communities, Gimpo, Goyang, Paju and Gangwho-do. Everybody interested in South Korea’s unparalleled economic growth knows that this came at a price, namely an often reckless use of scarce environmental resources. This was one reason, why the DMZ and the whole border area, where economic development could not take place easily, became a refuge for rare animals and birds in unspoiled habitats. The more important it is to ensure that future development in the area is sustainable and allows for peaceful coexistence of people and nature. On April 8, 2019, a whole-day forum bringing together local administrations, local politicians, experts on economic development and environmental protection, took place in Gimpo to discuss the way forward. It was a chance for stakeholders from very different areas, administrations, citizens and NGO, the press and scientists, to come together and discuss openly on sometimes complementary, but sometimes also controversial ideas of development of the region.
The forum started with opening addresses by Gimpo Mayor Chung Ha-Yong, Gimpo Council Chairwomen Shin Myong-Sun and Hong Chol-ho, Member of the Korean National Assembly. Then, a special session on the perspectives of development in the eyes of the local administrations started; it was chaired by Lee Han-Ju, head fo the Gyeonggi Development Institute. Gimpo Mayor Chong Ha-Yong, Paju mayor Choi Jong-hwan and the Vice governor of Gangwha county, Kang Jong-Wook discussed ways to relate to North Korea and network with it. All cities and local administrations around the Hangang Estuary already developed plans for cooperation with North Korea. Paju is interested in twinning with Kaesong city regarding the production of Kaesong Koryo Insam (the most famous Korean ginseng brand). Also, they would like to cooperate with Kepun-gun, Pyongannamdo, regarding the production of certain locally famous beans (Changdan kong). Historically, they refer to the famous Confucian scholar Yi Hwang (or Yi Yulgok), who was born in Kaesong, and whose in-laws came from Haeju. They would like to propose a “historical network” with Kaesong. Finally, they propose joint surveys of agriculture and disaster management with the North. Gangwha County also proposes a network regarding Kaesong Insam (also in South Korea, ginseng from Gangwha-do, Gimpo, Paju, Goyang is often marketed als Koryo Kaesong Insam). Gangwha also would like to network with the North regarding a certain form of folk music, Nongak, which became an intangible cultural asset,with the original place of origin being Hwanghaedo, then Gangwha. Finally, they propose joint activities due to the shared heritage of Gaesong and Gangwho from the ancient Koryo dynasty. Kimpo city finally proposes an eco-tourism project near Hangang Estuary, but also river fishing, cooperation regarding “se-u – jot” (small shrimps) with Yonbaek, salt evaporation ponds, and also want to build a bridge, linking Aegi-bong area (Chogangri) with North Korea, Kepun-gun, Chogang-ri, as a “peaceful road”. Paju should have a railroad connection with Kaesong (reconnection, because it also exists), and boat networking from Gangwha do. Unfortunately, while all plans were already approved by the South Korean government, there has been no real contact about them to the North Korean government.
The first regular session was a panel discussion of development proposals for the Han River Estuary based on a recent boat survey of the area. Hong Seung-min of the Ministry of Unification, Lee Ki-Sup of the Korean waterbird network, Yoon Seung-yong of the Wild Bird Society of Korea, Kim Won of the Korea Institute for Construction Technology and Choi Dong-Jin of the Korea Research Institute for Environment and Development discussed their impressions of the boat tour and their ideas for sustainable development. The session was moderated by Kang Tae-Ho, former president of the Hankyoreh Research Institute. In particular, Lee Ki-sup stressed the ecological importance of the Han River estuary and proposed joint research with North Korea on the ecological value of the area with the goal to establish a joint Flyway Network Site and Ramsar site in the area. Choi Dong-Jin proposed a new, inter-governmental body of the three provinces (Seoul, Incheon, Gyeonggi) and related counties and cities to guarantee sustainable development of Han River Estuary.
The second session, chaired by Prof. Im Tae-Seung of Inha University, looked into peaceful use and economic development versus environmental protection for the Han River Estuary. Dr. Bernhard Seliger of Hanns-Seidel-Foundation Korea presented results of eight surveys of the Yudo Island area of Han River Estuary. The area hosts endangered species like the Black-Faced Spoonbill, and internationally important concentrations of birds like Swan geese. To protect the area is therefore necessary, but it might conflict with ideas to increase transport infrastructure in the area. It is important to allow economic development in places, where industry and population already is located, like the Nampo – Pyongyang – Kaesong – Seoul – Pyongtaek area, but preserve areas of ecological value. Dr. Seliger also made proposals for cross-border cooperation on nature protection between Gimpo and North Korea, including joint surveys of environmental assets. In the discussion in particular Dr. Kim Dong-Sung of Gyeonggi Development Institute stressed development for a better life of the population, while Dr. Choi Jae-Sun of Korea Maritime Institute and Dr. Choo Jang-Min from the Korean Environment Institute focused on the issues of preservation in the development of Han River Estuary. For a country so much focusing on economic growth and with the experience of war and poverty, followed by rapid growth, economic success and recognition in the world community, certainly the focus on protection is not yet very strong. But given the extent of development, which also led to a different lifestyle of people and different appreciation of the environment, it is urgently necessary to come to a new growth model incorporating the protection and even recuperation of environmental resources. Gimpo and all regions adjacent to the Han River Estuary have a great responsibility, to also great opportunities to develop such a model balancing needs of humans and nature.
This cannot be done by South Korea alone – North Korea presents the other “half of the medal”. But this should not be seen as an obstacle or a reason to wait until the status of the Korean Peninsula changes. Indeed, cooperation with the North on environmental issues seems to be more feasible than ever: the North Korean Ministry of Land and Environment Planning (MOLEP) has in the past years with international partners, including Hanns-Seidel-Foundation and Birds Korea, carried out a program to participate in international cooperation along the Asia-Pacific Flyway. It became member of EAAFP and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and designated two important sites as Ramsar sites, namely Mundok at the West Coast and Rason at the East Coast. Since two years, inter-Korean cooperation became feasible again. Hopefully, soon it will extend to nature conservation and peaceful, sustainable cooperation in the Han River Estuary.

Geese overwintering in Yudo this year – still the landscape is largely unaffected by human settlements © Bernhard Seliger
However, the drive to “improve” landscapes by deep trenches rapidly carrying away any water and empty landscapes without any trees, bushes and other “islands of bio-diversity” is also visible here © Bernhard Seliger
Politicians, public administrators, academics, researchers, NGO representatives discussing the future of the Han River Estuary (April 8) – can they reconcile human needs and nature protection? © Choi Hyun-Ah

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