In A Nutshell
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) cuts across the Korean Peninsula on the 38th parallel, and is the most heavily militarized place in the world. It’s also a nearly untouched natural paradise, guarded on both sides and home to hundreds of unique animal species.
The Whole Bushel
When the Korean War ended in 1953, the two governments of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (South Korea and North Korea, respectively) agreed that they would each move their armies 2 kilometers (1.2 mi) away from the border. The result was the DMZ—a ribbon of land 4 kilometers (2.5 mi) wide and 250 kilometers (155 mi) long that sliced the peninsula in half. And then they just settled in. Each government distrustful of the other, both sides spent years fortifying their edge of the DMZ against attack. Even today, 60 years later, there are more armed soldiers here—over two million—than any other border in the world.
But inside the DMZ, nature flourished. Between the rapid urbanization of South Korea and the stripped wasteland of the North, the Korean Peninsula, once a diverse natural region with even more diverse wildlife, has been able to provide fewer and fewer natural habitats as the years go by. Rare species like the Siberian tiger and the Amur leopard are all but extinct on the peninsula, but there have been sightings of these large cats prowling the DMZ. It’s also the best preserved natural habitat of two of the most endangered birds in the world, the red-crowned crane and the white-naped crane.
It’s actually pretty difficult to study the wildlife in the area (land mines make a fantastic ecologist deterrent), so we’re not entirely sure how many species are currently living in the zone. It’s believed that there are more than 70 mammal species sharing the thin 4-kilometer strip of land, along with nearly 3,000 species of plant and over 300 bird species. The birds are able to migrate in and out of the zone, but the mammals were essentially trapped in there over half a century ago.
One of the reasons the DMZ has such diverse wildlife is due to its geographic diversity. The DMZ covers everything from mountain ranges to forest to wetlands, and even includes a bit of coastal region on the eastern tip. The region has already been recognized as an involuntary park—which is exactly what it sounds like—and there have been requests to allow ecologists into the DMZ to study the region. But although South Korea is open to the idea, North Korea is still almost violently opposed. In 2012, South Korea proposed that the DMZ be labeled a biosphere reserve under UNESCO, and North Korea not only rejected the idea, but went a step further and sent rejection letters to all the UNESCO council members.
In a way, it may be better this way; it’s been said that the only threat to the survival of this area is peace—if tensions between North and South Korea ever simmer down and the DMZ is disbanded, there will be nothing to protect this nature preserve—and all the animals living in it. Two million personal guards is a pretty sweet deal.