[Viewpoint]Preserve nature along the border

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[Viewpoint]Preserve nature along the border

The second inter-Korean summit is, depending on the various expectations of people, being enthusiastically welcomed, keenly observed or skeptically frowned upon. Will it give a boost to inter-Korean cooperation, perfectly matching with the progress in the six-party talks, will it merely be an apology for the North Korean regime or even worse, an attempt to interfere in South Korea’s presidential election?
An evaluation will not be easy, since, as U.S. President Gerald Ford once remarked when signing the Helsinki Declaration in 1975 ― which was a major detente effort in Cold War times ― it’s not the promises of today that counts, but how well those promises are fulfilled in the future.
This will also be how the inter-Korean summit is measured. One particularly intriguing proposal is the transformation of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), one of the most heavily fortified border areas, into a zone of peace.
If realized, it will transform a scar running through the peninsula into an invaluable asset. Look to Germany to understand how this is feasible: The 1,393-kilometer inter-German border was once a deadly obstacle for refugees, of whom more than 1,000 were killed trying to reach the West and its promise of freedom. Today it is a “green belt,” a zone of peace and nature conservation.
For nature, the deadly and barely penetrable strip was a sort of blessing in disguise. Nature was left alone, and along this strip a number of valuable areas were able to be preserved or even emerge. Wetlands, including marshes and bogs, now host rare birds and amphibians.
Formerly agricultural lands became fallow with diversified flora and fauna, including rare reptiles and birds such as the whinchat.
Brooks and rivers in the border area were, differently from the rest of Germany, not used for transportation and therefore never straightened.
The clear waters also host river clams and river otter. Neglected grasslands are important for the preservation of reptiles, birds and orchids.
Forests, finally, due to the border regime, were not used intensively during the time of division.
In the southeast border region between Bavaria and Thuringia, the rare black stork found its home in these lonely forests together with many other rare species. Fortunately, the entire length of the former border remains protected today as a green belt, not only as an environmental protection area, but as a living monument of German history.
Consequently, it is today the largest biotope system in Germany, intersected only in a few places for necessary transportation routes, but otherwise left intact for nature. This attracts numerous tourists who want to enjoy the border area’s unique nature and are also interested in the recent German history displayed in museums and monuments.
The situation in Korea is quite similar. The DMZ and the adjacent area are home to the rare Manchurian crane, a symbolic bird for Korea, as well as eagles and vultures, water deer and the Amur goral (a type of mountain goat).
Here, also, the protection of the former death zone of the DMZ as a natural reserve could be useful, with the exception of transport routes or a few other places, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex, earmarked for economic purposes.
The Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea together with Goseong County in Gangwon Province has worked since 2005 together for the sustainable development of the border area in that region. Joint projects include research on tourism and ecology as well as visits from German experts to Korea and Korean experts to the German border areas.
Since 2006, the project has been extended to a partnership of the Hanns Seidel Foundation with Gangwon Province and the Gangwon Development Research Institute.
Being desirable, will a transformation also be feasible? Certainly not in the short run. In Germany, it needed the opening of the wall and peaceful unification before the death strip could become a peace zone. But even now, there are possibilities for progress in this respect.
For this to happen, small controllable steps are important. Instead of offering a vague promise of a peace zone in the future, let cooperation begin with the establishment of peace zones, where they are most rewarding for the environment: e.g. by designing the rice paddies of Cheolwon, where cranes and vultures can be found during the winter season, the mouth of the Han River, equally important for birds like the rare black spoonbill, or some mountain areas in the East, sanctuaries for the Amur goral.
South Korea could offer to pay for the establishment of the zones and in these small, controllable areas the military of both sides could recede. This would be a small step for the two Koreas, but one that could establish trust between the two countries and finally lead to bigger steps on the way to a real inter-Korean peace zone.

*The writer is resident representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation and a frequent visitor to North Korea.

by Bernhard Seliger
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