Monday, November 30, 2009

Korea's DMZ treads fine line between nature and tourism - Feature

Posted on : 2009-11-23 - Author : dpa
News Category : Nature

Seoul - Known widely as one of the world's most heavily fortified borders, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea could also be called the world's most heavily fortified unofficial nature reserve. Since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, the military has tightly controlled access to the 248-kilometre-long, 4-kilometre-wide frontier between the two Koreas, which has allowed nature to take its course.

"The ecosystem in the DMZ is unique because it has been able to evolve over 56 years without human disturbance," said Kim Kwi Gon, a professor of environmental planning and design at Seoul National University (SNU), who plans to lead an ecological survey into the central DMZ next month.

The results of the planned survey, as well as other studies, could lead to zone being designated nature reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization in 2012, which would also increase interest in ecotourism.

"Since it's wintertime, it's cold and therefore difficult to see some species, so we are focusing on mammals, like water deer and boar, which aren't endangered, and checking for the presence of endangered species, like the leopard cat," said Kim Myungjin, a director in the ecosystem assessment division at the National Institute of Environmental Research. "After getting reports of rare species, we go in to check."

He said the team will explore parts of two counties that lie within the military buffer zone.

Next month's survey also comes during the migration season for birds heading from Siberia to Australia, SNU's Kim said. "Normally migratory birds stay in that area starting from mid or late October through February," he said, "So next month is a good time for us to see different migratory bird species including cranes, geese and wild ducks."

In a survey held in September in Cheorwon County, researchers identified 450 species of animals and plants, including goshawks and sparrow hawks, designated as endangered species by the Environment Ministry.

"The DMZ area is home to great biodiversity," said Jeon Seonhee, a researcher at the DMZ Ecology Research Institute. "More bird species are coming to the DMZ, even though it's not easy for birds to change their habitat."

The chance to spot such rare species is leading to the government's promotion of ecotourism in the area through the Korea Tourism Organization. On its website, DMZ eco-tours are promoted to visitors as trips to a "Peace Life Zone," although the region is only accessible via application to military units guarding the area and the tourism ministry.

The Environment Ministry wants to raise public awareness of the untouched habitat and biodiversity, said Lee Namue, a former official of the Korea Wetland Project, a conservation group under the joint jurisdiction of the ministry and the UN Development Programme.

"We would really like to designate it as a protected area," she said.

The government is also promoting festivals for the area's rich crops, for example the annual Paju Jangdan Bean Festival in Gyeonggi province in late November. According to figures released by the Paju city government, the festival drew 800,000 visitors last year and recorded revenue of more than 7 billion won (6 million dollars).

Throughout the year, the provincial government holds tofu-making demonstrations for groups in Tongilchon, or Unification Village, in Paju.

"This is a famous area for tofu," said Paju resident Kim Yong Bum, who has been making tofu for 16 years.

But there is a fine line between promotion and conservation. Another profitable crop of Paju is ginseng. "Ginseng is a good source of income, but it disrupts the natural habitat of birds," said Choi Chang Yong, a researcher at the Migratory Birds Center of the National Park Research Institute, during a tour of the DMZ.

As research continues, hopes remain high that the increased attention to the region will also preserve the natural wetlands and riverbanks.

"We can use this area to teach about the history of division on this peninsula and about ecosystems," ecologist Jeon said.

http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/295822,koreas-dmz-treads-fine-line-between-nature-and-tourism--feature.html

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