[Viewpoint]Under Park, forests forged big comeback

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[Viewpoint]Under Park, forests forged big comeback

If you live in Seoul or one of Korea’s major cities, your impression of this nation has very likely been shaped by what you see around you everyday: urbanization, millions of people, crowded roads, an endless jungle of concrete, glass and steel, and a minimum of green.
It thus may come as a surprise ― it certainly did to me ― to learn that Korea is among the greenest countries in the world, with forests covering some 6.3 million hectares (15.6 million acres). That’s about 64 percent of the nation’s total land area. To put this in perspective, the land in the United States is 33 percent forest. The rest of its land mass is cities and towns, farmland, plains, deserts, or some other environmental designation that falls short of “forest.” The same is true of Mexico, with forest covering 34 percent of the land.
And Canada? My own home country, with wilderness expanses so vast they could swallow up whole nations, has forest cover of 34 percent. Yes, that’s right ― 34 percent. Add to that what is designated as “other wooded land” and the figure still only rises to 45 percent. Korea beats that percentage by nearly a third.
So Korea has an enviable amount of forest cover, far above the North American average. And that’s only half the story. Korea also has the 18th-highest population density in the world, with 480 people per square kilometer. Of the 17 countries with higher densities, most are city-states or small island nations like Singapore, Monaco, Aruba and Bahrain. Set these aside and only Bangladesh, with 10 percent forest cover, and Taiwan (58 percent) are more heavily peopled.
Now consider this: In South America, the only countries with more forest cover than Korea are French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname, which have population densities of less than four people per square kilometer. Brazil, with its renowned Amazon wilds, falls somewhat short of Korea in forest cover, with 57 percent. The Congo, one of Africa’s most heavily forested countries, has slightly more forest cover than Korea at 66 percent. Its population density, however, is only 11.3 people per square kilometer. That’s 43 times lower than Korea. In Europe, Sweden holds the record for most forest cover (67 percent), with a population density of 21.8 people per square kilometer, 22 times lower than Korea.
In short, Korea, despite being one of the most densely populated nations in the world, enjoys a degree of forest cover that rivals and in many cases surpasses countries commonly thought of as being lavishly endowed with trees. Indeed, when Korea’s extreme population density is factored into its impressive forest cover, Korea has just about the greatest degree of forest cover of any developed, densely populated nation. Only Japan and Taiwan come close. (Japan has a population density of 350 people per square kilometer and forest cover of 68 percent. The figures for Taiwan are 636 and 58 percent. For North Korea, incidentally, they’re 189 and 51 percent.)
How can this be? One point in Korea’s favor is that virtually all its land is capable of supporting forest growth, unlike, say, China with its Gobi Desert and treeless western steppes, and Canada with its arctic tundra where trees cannot grow. Another factor is the mountainous nature of Korea, which historically confined agriculture and development, and hence tree-cutting, to valleys and coasts.
And then there’s Park Chung Hee, Korea’s president from 1961 to 1979. Although best remembered for fostering industrialization and shaping the economic “Miracle on the Han,” Mr. Park also played a key role in restoring Korea’s forests. The situation he inherited was grim. The nation’s forests were depleted by over-logging during the Japanese occupation. The hills around cities and towns were stripped bare for fuel during the Korean War and the following hard years. Drastic measures were called for, and that’s what Mr. Park took. In 1973, as part of the Saemaeul (New Community) Movement, he launched a program to replant one million hectares of forest within 10 years. Like many of Park’s programs, it was ambitious, with one million hectares equating to over one-10th the land area of the country.
Like many of Mr. Park’s programs, it worked. The one million hectare target was achieved in 1978 ― in half the allotted time. By the 1980s so much forest cover had been restored that it was no longer necessary for the government to focus on reforestation. The emphasis switched to managing forest resources.
Today, Korea relies on imports for 94 percent of its domestic timber consumption and allows its forests to grow for the most part. Much of the country’s forest is still quite young, in many areas less than 30 years old. As these stands mature, however, an increase in timber harvesting may become desirable to manage this valuable resource. Korea may be on the cusp of developing a significant domestic logging industry, a far cry from the popular impression of it being a land of pavement, factories, and urban sprawl.

Forest and population data from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005.

*The writer is a professor of practical English at Yonsei University and author of “The Imjin War.”

by Samuel Hawley
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