Draft 2: Biodiversity Conservation in the DMZ as Part of the Solution

Dr Nial Moores, Birds Korea, August 11th 2019

Every year there are multiple meetings held to discuss the future of the DMZ. The DMZ is a hugely complicated, multi-faceted and sensitive set of issues. We therefore usually avoid posting much about it.

However, I have been asked to participate in two major meetings about the DMZ in the next six weeks: the first on August 28th and 29th, at which I have been invited to be a discussion panelist; and the second on September 19th and 20th, at which I will be a presenter – and for which I have been asked to prepare a 5-10 page “full text” essay and a Powerpoint.

Below is the second draft of this essay, which I have been told should be sent to organisers latest on about August 15th. I am posting this draft in the hope (please) of receiving feedback and suggestions on how to improve it: What do you like? What do you disagree with? What have I got wrong? What have I omitted?

If you were able to send me comments (posted on Facebook; or to the comments section on this blog; or sent directly to me by email) before midday on Monday August 12th I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you so very much!


The heavily militarized Korean DMZ lies within the inner border area of Korea between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the DPRK. Although poorly researched, the DMZ is already known to have high ecological importance. Set within a densely populated region where most lowland and coastal areas have already been profoundly degraded by human activities, the DMZ preserves a living archive of biodiversity; it contains internationally important areas for wildlife; and it includes diverse ecosystems which have been undergoing natural regeneration for six decades. The DMZ also has a high symbolic and cultural value. Although the DMZ’s ecological values can potentially be learned and benefitted from more or less equally by the ROK and the DPRK, its symbolic and cultural meaning is likely to be perceived differently by people in either nation. These differences need to be understood and addressed. Currently, however, there is enormous interest in the ROK on planning for the future of the DMZ as part of the peace process, with many unilateral development proposals being made. The ecological impacts of these proposals are poorly understood and it is unclear whether or not they have sufficient popular understanding and support yet in the ROK either. Moreover, it is also unclear whether the DPRK welcomes these proposals or will have the opportunity to modify them if needed.  In the interests of reducing mistrust and winning support from more stakeholders, it would seem wise at this time to avoid making any unilateral development proposals which might affect any part of the DMZ.  Instead, the ROK should take immediate advantage of its substantial technical and economic capacity to buy up land and to support farmers in the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) which borders the DMZ and in other areas close to the inner border of Korea. Through providing proper compensation payments and investment, farmers and landowners could and deserve to benefit economically from managing these lands and waters in ways which maintain and increase biodiversity and enhance their natural ecosystem services.  This “Wise Use of the CCZ” approach should also include the appropriate designation of Protected Areas and Ramsar sites, and the testing of new strains of rice and fishery practices which might be helpful in moving toward organic, climate-friendly and wildlife-friendly agriculture throughout the ROK and the DPRK. Monitoring programs throughout the CCZ and inner border area should also be expanded to measure the success of each management approach with the results being made public in the ROK and also shared with counterpart agencies in the DPRK. Over time, as conditions allow, coordinated inter-Korean and regional joint projects, initially focused on e.g. rice-strains and key species like the Red-crowned Crane could then be conducted to improve upon this initial research and to help refine understanding of shared needs and shared goals.  Once success has been attained in the development of management approaches, exchange visits to managed areas in both the ROK’s CCZ and in the DPRK itself could be organized, with the focus throughout on enhancement of shared natural resources so that both nations can better attain the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  Perhaps a decade or more will be needed to develop appropriate management skills; improve information-sharing; and to build trust and support, within the ROK and between the ROK and the DPRK and regional partners. Based on this kind of firm foundation, however, better-informed discussions could then take place, aimed at developing a genuinely sustainable conservation plan for the DMZ and inner border area as part of the all-Korea peace process, firmly integrated into both nations’ sustainable development plans.


The 2019 Gyeonggi DMZ Forum has three main aims: (1) to redefine the meaning and significance of the DMZ as a symbol of integration, life and peace; (2) to suggest solutions for building a framework for peace on the Korean Peninsula; and (3) to support cooperation between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the DPRK, and between the Korean Peninsula and the rest of Northeast Asia.

Birds Korea is a small and specialized NGO based in Busan which is dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Ecoregion work. We are non-political and work throughout the ROK and regionally with the aim of supporting progress towards environmental sustainability, as envisioned by national laws, international conservation conventions and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2015).  We have more than 15 years of experience working close to the inner border region of Korea: near to the NLL, and close to and within the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) which lies immediately south of the DMZ. In the west of the inner border, we have conducted several years of research on Baekryeong Island in the ROK part of Ongjin County, and developed a series of proposals aimed at reducing biodiversity decline while increasing ecosystem function and improving the livelihoods of local communities (Birds Korea 2019).  We have also conducted surveys in the CCZ in Gimpo City (Hanns Seidel Foundation 2019) and in Yeoncheon and Cheorwon Counties in the ROK part of central Korea.  In the east of the inner border area, we have also surveyed waterbirds and seabirds, both south and north of the DMZ, in Goseong County (Moores et al. 2017).

In the DPRK, since 2014 we have conducted a dozen surveys of birds and wetlands, from the West Sea barrage near Pyongyang in the southwest to Rason in the northeast (Moores 2017); conducted in-field training of government and State Academy of Science researchers; and presented at several local and national workshops relevant to biodiversity conservation.  Initially, our research visits were organised to support revision of the DPRK’s Wetlands Inventory and to encourage DPRK accession to the Ramsar Convention. This process was initiated and led by the Ministry of Land and Environment Protection (MoLEP, DPRK), and supported especially by the Hanns Seidel Foundation (Korea office) and the Ramsar Secretariat. As part of our work, we have also participated in meetings with DPRK officials in Hong Kong, mainland China and Cambodia; and reviewed substantial bodies of literature on the biodiversity of the DPRK. 

This essay will first explain observations from our work which we consider relevant to the future conservation and wise use of the DMZ; and then list eleven proposals which, respectfully, we consider could be useful as small steps to take toward meeting the Gyeonggi DMZ Forum’s three larger aims. 

Main Ecological Values of the DMZ

The Korean Peninsula is largely mountainous, with a very high human population density, especially in lowland areas. Most lowland habitats are therefore heavily modified and exploited. The DMZ remains poorly researched because of severe access restrictions. However, almost the entire 4km-wide land-based corridor has escaped recent development pressures, and therefore likely preserves much of the fauna and flora typical of central Korea prior to industrialization that took place in the 1960s and subsequently. This living archive therefore likely contains many species which are now assessed as nationally or globally threatened and which have already been extirpated from most areas outside of the DMZ.

In addition, in recognition of the growing twin crises of accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss, there have been sustained calls to conserve and restore ecosystems. These include Target 15 of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which calls for all contracting nations to the Convention on Biological Diversity to increase ecosystem resilience and to enhance the contribution of biodiversity to carbon stocks by 2020 “through conservation and restoration, including restoration of at least 15 per cent of degraded ecosystems”(CBD 2010).  Because the DMZ contains a high diversity of habitats and many of these habitats have been undergoing natural ecological succession for more than six decades, research on this succession should be of immense value to both the ROK and the DPRK in planning and enacting large-scale restoration projects in other parts of the Korean Peninsula, both north and south of the DMZ.

The land-based DMZ also provides a largely undisturbed stopover site for migratory bird and insect species. We already have evidence of a sanctuary effect in the daily-cycle of some migratory bird species. Based on satellite tracking projects started in the 1990s and on direct observations, we know that many individuals of the globally Endangered Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis and globally Vulnerable White-naped Crane Antigone vipio roost overnight through the winter in the DMZ, and then fly out into adjacent areas to feed (e.g. Chong et al. 1994). More recently, our research in Goseong County confirmed that several thousand Pelagic Cormorants Phalacrocorax pelagicus commute each day in winter from rocks off from Haekumkang in the DPRK part of the DMZ, used for overnight roosting, to marine waters off from the Geojin headland in the ROK, used for feeding during the day (Moores et al. 2017).

Marine areas of the inner border of Korea (extending west to the NLL in the Yellow Sea; and east into the East Sea) similarly provide a year-long sanctuary for marine life. Research in other parts of the world suggests that if appropriately-managed, the presence of no-fishing zones can contribute to the recovery of fish populations and help to maintain fisheries outside of the protected area itself (Roberts et al. 2005; de Leo & Micheli 2015).  While more research in Korean waters is needed, based on the evidence available to us it seems reasonable to assume that the DMZ and many areas in and close to the inner border are a de facto sanctuary for both land-based and marine species in which they can maintain their populations and out of which they can potentially also expand their ranges. However, any expansion (i.e. reoccupation of former range) can only realistically be sustained if habitats and other threats to biodiversity in these adjacent areas are appropriately managed.

Our assumptions are supported by our observations of birds in the CCZ and in substantial parts of the inner border area of Korea.  Based on still-limited research, the CCZ and inner border area appears to support a disproportionate number of individuals of nationally and globally threatened bird species when compared with similar-looking landscapes outside of the inner border region (e.g. Moores et al. 2017; Hanns Seidel Foundation 2019). Examples are many. They include the Grey-capped Woodpecker Yungipicus canicapillus, a largely sedentary species of mature forests; and several species of goose and crane. The apparent greater abundance of these species in the CCZ and inner border area than outside of it seems to us likely due to a combination of less disturbance and development pressure within the CCZ and near border areas (at least until recently) and the sanctuary effect of the DMZ. 

Further support for this assumption is suggested by data from the Ministry of Environment’s annual winter bird census (e.g. MOE 1999-2017) and surveys and monitoring programs conducted by experienced researchers. Data confirm that several species of geese and crane regularly form concentrations in several parts of the DMZ and CCZ which meet Ramsar criteria used to identify internationally important wetlands (Ramsar 2019).  These internationally important wetlands, some of which are entirely within the ROK and some of which are shared with and extend deep into the DPRK, include much of the Han-Imjin Estuary and lower river stretches (in the ROK, including Ganghwa Island’s tidal flats; the Han Estuary in Gimpo City; the Han and Imjin lower river stretches and much of the adjacent rice-fields and wetland habitats at least upstream as far as the Janghang Wetland and Yeoncheon County) and much of the CCZ in Cheorwon County.  Along the East Sea coast too, central Goseong County meets criteria for identification as a Marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (Moores et al. 2017).  Close to the inner border too, there are several internationally important wetlands located along the Hwanghaenam coast of the DPRK (DPRK 2018) and also one wetland on Baekryeong Island which is internationally important based on Ramsar criteria.  This density and near-continuity of internationally important bird habitats along much of the inner border area of Korea appears on current understanding to be unique on the Korean Peninsula.

In any discussion of this kind it is essential to recognize that the Ramsar criteria are based on decades of scientific research. Birds are valuable in themselves, and for the many ecosystem services which they provide, including helping to fertilise rice-fields; predation of harmful insects and crop-pest species; for pollination; and as natural agents of seed dispersal, helping in the natural restoration of forests (Kurechi 2007; Şekercioğlu 2017).  The Ramsar criteria make explicit that birds have great value as bio-indicators too. Internationally important concentrations of waterbirds help to reveal the natural health, productivity and diversity of a given ecosystem; and changes in population and distribution of the same species revealed by monitoring programs is an efficient way of measuring the success or failure of conservation initiatives, and of gauging ecosystem resilience.

Bird Conservation and Green Diplomacy

Approximately 90% of bird species recorded on the Korean Peninsula are migratory, moving seasonally along a broadly North-South Axis.  The vast majority of bird species are therefore shared by both the ROK and the DPRK.  Several of these have outstanding cultural value, including the Red-crowned Crane. This species adorns artwork in PR China, Japan and the Korean Peninsula as a symbol of longevity, and also adorns the cover of the DPRK’s Wetland Inventory (DPRK 2018).  A wetland-dependent species, the Red-Crowned Crane has undergone remarkable declines over the past century, largely because of wetland degradation and loss.  Currently the species is assessed as globally Endangered, with a total population of only 1,830 mature individuals in the wild (IUCN 2019).  Remarkably, more than half of these spend the winter in the inner border area of Korea. The Red-crowned Crane has already been the focus of active conservation work throughout North-east Asia.  Coordinated research and conservation projects focused on this species in and close to the inner border area of Korea by both the ROK and the DPRK offer one politically-neutral way forward for collaboration toward meeting shared goals.

Lessons from Our Work in the ROK and the DPRK

In the ROK, despite the best efforts of GO and NGO conservation bodies and a slew of legislation, our research continues to document extensive habitat degradation and loss, both outside and inside of the inner border area of Korea. This includes tidal flat reclamation; the infilling of natural freshwater wetlands and the replacement of soft-banked drainage channels in rice-fields with steep-sided concrete drains, even within the CCZ (e.g. in Gimpo and Cheorwon). We also continue to document an increase in damaging disturbance to wildlife caused e.g. by a growth of the road and cycle network through sensitive areas and by logging in summer months. In working landscapes (e.g. in agricultural areas, managed forests and in tidal flat areas), we have encountered very few habitats managed for the conservation of biodiversity. Moreover, we remain unaware of any recent major development project anywhere in the ROK that has incorporated appropriate measures to conserve biodiversity and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at either the local or the national level.  Instead, even recent Environmental Impact Assessments continue to under-report the presence of threatened species; and to assert that there will be minimal impacts (see e.g. the review of the Bijarim Ro road-widening project on Jeju Island in Moores 2019).

As a result of the current development model and lack of suitably managed areas, a substantial proportion of the ROK’s regularly-occurring bird species are in steep decline, especially in wetlands and in agricultural landscapes (Moores et al. 2014).  Similarly steep declines in other species groups and in the health of ecosystems can also be inferred (see e.g. ROK 2014). An obvious conclusion is that although the ROK has been a leader in forest restoration, there is a severe lack of experience of managing other habitat types appropriately in order to address the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises. There is therefore insufficient experience and administrative capacity at this time within the ROK to maintain the ecological integrity of the CCZ; and following reunification, of the DMZ either.

In combination, our experiences have also confirmed that there is substantial pressure on lowland bird habitats within the DPRK too, including large-scale reclamation of tidal flats, forest cutting and ecologically-destructive dredging of rivers. There are also very high levels of disturbance even within protected areas.  

Notably, however, officials within MoLEP (DPRK) have repeatedly demonstrated a profound understanding of conservation issues. Although there are obvious financial and technical limits to the DPRK’s conservation capacity (e.g. Kim 2015; Moores et al. 2019), and there are contradictions between some of the policies being pursued by ministries, the officials we have met with understand the importance of healthy forests and the contributions of functioning ecosystems in helping the DPRK meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Moreover, these Goals do not appear to be tangential to conservation aims: instead, they appear to be deeply-integrated. Sustainable Development Goals that we have discussed explicitly with MoLEP (DPRK) in the context of wetland conservation include reducing poverty (Goal 1) and reducing hunger (Goal 2) through increasing production of fish and rice and other harvestable species in wetlands; helping with the provision of clean water (Goal 6); climate action, by conserving vegetated tidal wetlands, as at Mundok (Goal 13); and of course, the conservation of life in water and on land (Goals 14 and 15).  

It is apparent too that MoLEP (DPRK) also recognizes the need to develop new Partnerships (Goal 17). In our experience, the DPRK appears to welcome and to be responsive to new information and ideas. However, as in many parts of the world (including here in the ROK), deep suspicions sometimes need to be overcome.  Partnerships therefore work best when mutual respect is shown and when information clearly addresses the needs of the DPRK, rather than being pre-determined by outside bodies. As in the ROK, progress can be very rapid once a plan has formed. In only four years (2015-2018), the DPRK completed a revised National Wetlands Inventory (DPRK 2018); acceded to the Ramsar Convention, designating two globally important Ramsar sites (Mundok on the west coast in Rason in the northeast) (Ramsar 2018); and joined the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) (EAAFP 2018), an international partnership dedicated to migratory bird conservation with the Secretariat housed in Incheon City. MoLEP (DPRK) also became a partner organization of the IUCN, and is also currently developing management plans for key sites while also working towards the development of a Wetlands Conservation Law and a National Wetlands Centre (Moores et al. 2019).

It is notable too that Partnerships in environmental issues between the DPRK and international bodies have a long history and include multiple examples of successful collaboration (Kim 2015). For example, collaborative research on cranes by DPRK and Japanese researchers started in the early 1990s. Satellite transmitters were used to identify key areas used by cranes during migration.  Based on the results, several new protected areas were designated.  Later, an integrated management plan was then developed for a small part of one of these areas in northern Gangwon Province with the support of the Hanns Seidel Foundation (Korea office), which included enhanced rice production; an agroforest; and habitat managed specifically for migrant cranes (Chong et al. 1994; Higuchi 2001; State Academy of Sciences 2016).  


Conservation science, as defined by Kareiva & Marvier (2012), explicitly recognizes the tight coupling of social and natural systems.  As such, any discussion of the conservation of the DMZ needs to consider a number of extraordinarily sensitive social and political realities in addition to ecological values. Paramount among these is that the DMZ is a zone that extends for two kilometers either side of the Military Demarcation Line which separates the ROK and the DPRK. It has for over six decades been a militarily controlled zone, during which time both the ROK and the DPRK, cleaved from a single culture, have continued to identify themselves (and often only themselves) as “Korea”. Since 1953, both nations have also remained technically at war with each other, and many additional lives have been lost in conflicts. Both nations have therefore found themselves pulled and pushed to evolve in near-opposite directions, in an often conscious response to war and the influence of war-time allies. As such the ROK and the DPRK now have very different political frameworks, economic realities and cultural reference points from each other.  A generation of mistrust, one perhaps wider and deeper than the DMZ, has grown up. This mistrust needs first to be understood and then addressed, if true lasting peace is to be achieved.

Within the ROK, many people already recognize that the DMZ has high ecological value.  To the environmental and conservation community, the DMZ offers us an almost last chance to conserve biodiversity and undisturbed ecosystems. Many of us feel too that the DMZ has become a near-sacred symbol of opposites: of war and of peace; of division and of the yearning for reunification – a natural place of healing given time. But even within the ROK, there are many who are opposed to the current peace process and many others who see the DMZ’s greatest value as economic – as an expanse of under-developed land, with transportation corridors between Seoul and Pyongyang and east coast centres of population which needs to be built as soon as possible.  Lacking much consensus on the DMZ within the ROK, is it reasonable to expect that everyone in the DPRK uniformly perceives the DMZ in the same way as each other or in the same way that we do here in the ROK?

In our meetings with MoLEP (DPRK), there has in reality been remarkably little interest shown in the DMZ. It seems to be viewed as one of very many areas with extremely strict access restrictions. Moreover, because it lacks a substantial human population, it really is not a conservation priority, yet. Conservation priorities are instead areas and issues which directly relate to the needs of people, and which can help the DPRK move toward the better fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

How can this distance between people be reduced, so that we can talk with and not talk at each other?


Birds Korea would respectfully like to offer a linear series of ROK-based proposals for consideration, intended to support the three aims of the Gyeonggi DMZ Forum.

It seems wise to us, if:

  1. The ROK were to announce an immediate moratorium on all development proposals within and directly affecting the DMZ, unless these developments have already been agreed to formally with the DPRK. This includes the suspension of all unilateral proposals, even those pertaining only to the ROK side of the DMZ (e.g. the pursuit of designation as a biosphere reserve: ROK 2011) in order to avoid ecological damage and misunderstanding between the ROK and the DPRK;
  2. The ROK could from today use its great technical and economic capacity to buy-up substantial areas of land within the CCZ and to support farmers within the CCZ and the ROK part of the inner border area to farm more sustainably, in ways that can reduce our national carbon footprint and which can allow biodiversity to increase.  To pay for this, funds which are currently allocated to projects that will inevitably result in ecological degradation in the inner border area (e.g. new roads, peace parks, new monuments, hiking trails, industrial-agricultural construction, and the 110 Billion won currently being set aside for the proposed new airport on Baekryeong Island), could be redirected toward land purchase and farmer and fisher support, in order to help the ROK meet the Aichi Biodiversity Target of 15% of land restoration and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Substantial additional funds could also be sourced from charging visitors to enter the CCZ and supplemented by e.g. a fund-raising and awareness-raising National Lottery dedicated toward this end;
  3. Areas that are internationally important for biodiversity within the CCZ and adjacent areas of the inner border area of the ROK could within this year be appropriately delineated and in 2020 designated as e.g. national Wetland Protected Areas and Ramsar Sites (a year in which global attention is likely to be focused even more intently on the biodiversity and climate crises);
  4. Experienced NGOs and community organisers could be identified and properly funded to work with farmers and local communities within the inner border area of the ROK to identify issues of concern and also to generate public awareness-raising materials on the importance of the CCZ and the DMZ to the ROK for ecological sustainability and peace on the Korean Peninsula as a whole;
  5. Experienced NGO researchers and GO researchers could be identified and properly funded to monitor biodiversity and other environmental factors throughout the ROK inner border area;
  6. Within selected areas of the inner border area, improved farming approaches could include the testing of rice strains and rice-field fisheries aimed at enhancing ecosystem functions and improving local peoples’ livelihoods in both the ROK and the DPRK. Within the same areas, as part of this, habitats could also be managed in order to benefit priority conservation species like the Red-crowned Crane, and the Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana – the latter species already the focus of a national restoration initiative;
  7. The rationale for and the progress in habitat management in the ROK inner border area needs to be made public throughout, with relevant information also shared with counterpart agencies in the DPRK, in order to build trust and to help identify shared common goals;
  8. Based on the identification of shared DMZ-relevant goals, the ROK could then propose coordinated research projects in both the ROK and the DPRK (e.g. if agreed, on Red-crowned Crane conservation and on shorebird species found in tidal areas);
  9. Once measurable success has been achieved in land purchase and land management, training workshops could be held, initially in a third country (e.g. PR China), with the support of the host nation and international organisations which already have experience and / or formal relationships with the DPRK (including e.g. the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the EAAFP, the IUCN, the Ramsar Centre for East Asia and the Pukorokoro Miranda Trust in New Zealand). Land and water managers from the ROK and the DPRK (from managed areas such as Mundok and Rason) could be invited to share their work and to jointly develop materials relevant to conservation of the inner border area; and the restoration of degraded ecosystems in other areas.
  10. If conditions allow, exchanges could also be organized to managed areas and restoration test sites, by ROK specialists to the DPRK; and DPRK specialists to the ROK;
  11. Based on this kind of foundation, further conferences could then be held within the DPRK and ROK, and within a third country, focused on the future of the DMZ, as it relates to ecological conservation, including calling for a new “Korean Ecological Civilization.”  Such a discussion will work best if it is based on practical examples of collaboration; a clear understanding of each other’s goals; integration of the inner border area into national plans for sustainable development; and joint commitment to the global framework provided by the Sustainable Development Goals.


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