- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

YANGGU, South Korea — ithin earshot of a truckload of South Korean soldiers, a family of wild boars approaches a military base looking for an afternoon snack. Just down the road, water deer dash into a forest dotted with mines.

Off-limits to most civilians for more than 50 years and separating about 2 million soldiers from the two Koreas, this demilitarized zone is the world’s most heavily fortified border.

That has made it an unlikely haven — but not an entirely safe one — for wildlife.

“It’s easy to see wild cats and boars around here. Sometimes I see badgers, weasels and elk,” said South Korean Sgt. Lee Jae-ho, whose 21st Infantry Division patrols the zone. “But with the minefields, I also see some animals with broken legs and other wounds.”

Once a place of farms and villages, the 150-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide strip and adjacent civilian-controlled zones to the south underwent a radical makeover after the Korean War cease-fire was declared in 1953.

Most civilians are banned, and tranquil village life has given way to a virtual no man’s land of mines, sandbagged bunkers and guard posts. The civilian-controlled zone, or CCZ, is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, while the DMZ is marked by a 13-foot-high wall constantly watched by soldiers.

With its soaring mountains, rolling lowlands and coastal wetlands, the zone is one of the most biologically rich on the Korean Peninsula, scientists say.

Hundreds of bird species winter here, among them at least two endangered types of crane: white-naped and red-crowned. Fifty types of mammals live here, including the rare Asiatic black bear, Amur leopard and, some think, based on traces of footprints and droppings, the Siberian tiger. More than 1,000 plant species thrive.

Amid hopes of a North-South reconciliation and increased development near the border, conservationists are stepping up calls to have it proclaimed a nature reserve.

“Many of the species you find in the DMZ or the CCZ are no longer found in the rest of the country,” said Ke Chung Kim, a professor at Penn State University and chairman of the nonprofit DMZ Forum.

“We should have the North and South Korean governments preserve this area for long-term conservation,” he said. “Unless that is done, the DMZ may not last as it is now. That is my serious concern.”

Conservationists worry that peace will bring increased farming and population and that refugees from North Korea’s failing economy will flood the zone.

“The demand for development of this area is already high, and we have to consider the people who have rights to the property here,” said Chung Ok-sik, a Seoul University graduate student researching birds in the area. A few key sites, such as the wetlands of Cheolwon basin, where cranes winter, should be protected, he said.

Conservation efforts were boosted in November, when CNN founder Ted Turner visited the two Koreas and said the DMZ should become a peace park and World Heritage Site to honor the Korean War dead.

The United Nations’ body that designates heritage sites supports the idea, and South Korea’s environmental ministry has asked North Korea to join it in nominating the DMZ, said Son Woo-rak, a ministry official. North Korea hasn’t responded, Mr. Son said.

Meanwhile, the Cold War is showing slight signs of thawing. Rail and road links are being reconnected through the DMZ to North Korea, and tourists are regular visitors to the heavily guarded border area. Seoul-based Hyundai Asan Corp. opened an industrial complex in North Korea near the DMZ in 2004, bringing together North Korean labor and South Korean management. It also runs a resort in North Korea, Diamond Mountain, that attracts hundreds of thousands of South Korean tourists annually.

The South Korean government has built bridges and tunnels in the DMZ to protect wildlife from road traffic.

Inside the civilian zone near Yanggu, about 45 miles northeast of Seoul, the military presence is intertwined with nature. The sounds of Korean magpies and yellow-throated bunting compete with the buzzing of a chain saw at a military base. Signs posted outside the thick forest warn of mines, and a picturesque valley houses a shooting range with cutouts of attacking North Korean soldiers.

Looking out over rolling hills that give way to rugged mountains blanketed with pine trees and Mongolian oaks, Mr. Chung, the Seoul University graduate student, says the landscape harks back to a simpler time before skyscrapers, golf courses and strip malls came to South Korea.

Here, “nature remains raw,” he said. “This could serve as a model of how you take an area once inhabited and return it to nature.”

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