By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Tanya Silverman.
Riding in the backseat of a Hyundai Sonata sedan through the rolling hills of South Korea’s east coast, I enjoyed the summery scenery as we cruised towards the border of the Korean peninsula’s other elusive half: North Korea.
The driver was a middle-aged Korean researcher, who, along with his friendly wife, had been kind enough to offer me a ride to the demilitarized zone (also known as the “DMZ”) the 155-mile long, 2.5-mile wide boundary between North and South Korea.
That was back in August 2011. At that point, I had been residing in South Korea for nine months, working as an English teacher, and yet, still had very little knowledge or connection to the happenings of the secretive Northern neighbor, other than the episode where the North shelled the small South Korean island of Yeonpyeong which entailed a brief period of panic and escalation of war-themed rhetoric.
That was all back in 2010 and 2011, when Kim Jung-Il was still alive, and his son Kim Jung-Un was being groomed to become his successor. My elementary students would draw pictures of the latter’s chubby, square face, and compare him to Spongebob Squarepants.
When I finally arrived to the DMZ, I viewed it (but didn’t enter) from the northernmost, easternmost accessible point of South Korea. I stood on an elevated platform and peered into the DMZ’s landscape, which from my vantage point, consisted of a static, defunct rail line, lush green hills, and shallow waves crashing onto a sandy beach; all of which actually looked pretty pleasant, but did not feel different, or powerful, or worth such controversy. Perhaps being surrounded by snapping photographers and cheesy DMZ souvenirs may have ruined any type of eerie sensation of that spectacle.
In the car, traveling back away from the DMZ, the driver asked me what I thought.
“It was… interesting,” I responded, though noticeably bit tongue-in-cheek. “But a little… touristy.”
He and his wife laughed in agreement.
To keep up the conversation, I brought up how I had previously heard that the DMZ contained a rich ecology because of the lack of human access or interaction.
“Yes,” he replied. “Some scientists even think… there may be tigers in the DMZ.”
South Korea is a small country that is very densely populated, but poor in wildlife and biodiversity. From my own encounters in this modernized and urbanized nation, I found the majority of the nature to be quite developed; ascending mountains, trails are often carved out into stairs, crowded with hikers decked out in pristine hiking gear, and at the summit it is not uncommon to find a casual restaurant with bottled drinks and spicy ramen. As for the wildlife in the DMZ, there has been documentation of numerous rare animals, but observations have limitations due to the fact humans rarely ever go into its physical territory.
In terms of tigers, these cats are a traditional Korean cultural symbol, although the ones that were native to the Korean peninsula have been killed off ages ago. But are they extinct in Korea?
Lim Sun Nam, often dubbed as the “Tigerman,” says they are not. In fact, he has committed his life to proving that tigers still roam free in Korea, prowling around the civilian controlled zone (the border area that surrounds the DMZ) to collect fur samples, take pictures of footprints, install heat-sensing cameras and sometimes set up a special horn to blast tiger mating calls.
Even though this border region of the peninsula is cluttered with landmines, Lim does not feel threatened, as he follows the tracks of the animals and trusts their judgment.
Photo courtesy of Tanya Silverman.
In a short CNN documentary piece following Lim, this eccentric individual professes his mission with pride: “The Tiger isn’t just an animal of Korea. It’s an animal of the world.”
Seung-ho “Sean” Lee, the President of the DMZ Forum who appears in the CNN video, discusses such prospects with BTR.
“I do not want to say that the tiger is extinct because North Korea is linked to Siberia and China,” Lee tells BTR, “and I’ve heard that on the northern side, the fences are very loose,” therefore, large mammals like tigers could potentially enter and settle in the DMZ.
While there have been anecdotal accounts of tiger sightings, no substantial scientific evidence exists that they roam this ethereal territory.
Tigers are however not the main focus of the DMZ Forum, as the NGO is interested in many of the other animals that scientists have either documented or speculated: fifty mammal species, i.e. leopard, lynx, and Asiatic Black Bear, eighty fish species and hundreds of birds. The environment within the DMZ contains rivers, forests, mountains, bogs and wetlands that harbor over 1,100 species of plants.
Seung-ho Lee and the folks at the DMZ Forum look beyond environmental preservation interests. The Forum’s goal is to preserve the existing ecology in the DMZ, and found a UNESCO world heritage site better focused on international peace, around which the entire Korean peninsula could eventually reunite.
“We now need to find a common ground to work together, because these two nations that have shared the same language and same culture for over a thousand years have been so divided for the last 60 years,” says Lee. “They have been separately developed and have formed many ideological differences. Koreans need a common denominator to reunite our common heritage.”
Eleana Kim, an Associate Professor at Rochester University whose current research project is titled “Making Peace with Nature: The Greening of the Korean Demilitarized Zone”, shares her insight with BTR.
“The possibility of the Siberian tiger living in the DMZ is rather low,” she reasons, though acknowledges that “Tigerman” Lim is a “colorful character.”
In her course of research, Eleana Kim tells BTR that matters get very complicated on the political side, such as how the past two South Korean leaders have often presented DMZ peace park plans or conservation efforts with agendas for their own images. She points to the last president, Myung-bak Lee, who attempted to “promote himself as a leader in sustainable development” guiding a nation that cares for its environment. At this time, the current president, Geun-hye Park, delivers her prospective peace park rhetoric as a strategy to foster a “stronger footing” image between North and South Korea.
Another problem is that, “every attempt to create some kind of protected area in the DMZ has always come up against North Korean resistance. From the North Korean side, they will always say, ‘We can’t have a peace park until we have a peace treaty.’”
In one of her articles, Kim analyzes the ways that people tend to “fetishize the DMZ and its ‘nature,’” and because people are hardly ever even allowed into this territory, the actual scientific evidence of flora and fauna “has been spotty and unsystematic” –- plus, most observations on the subject have been made from the civilian controlled zone, not the actual DMZ.
Several organizations in South Korea offer DMZ tours, such as Adventure Korea. Katrina Marris guides an English version of one such tour in the western part of the peninsula.
Tourists often enter with the misconception, Marris explains, that they will actually walk into North Korea, but, in reality, they only go so far as the surrounding civilian controlled zone and observe the DMZ from there. Further, some tourists anticipate that they will be entering a tumultuous war zone.
“It doesn’t feel like a stressful situation there,” she tells BTR. “It feels like you are in a nice, big national park.”
As for the ecology, she explains that Adventure Korea plays an educational video about the DMZ’s flora and fauna to supplement tours.
“I’ve sometimes seen deer from a distance, but where we are is a tourist area, so animals pretty much stay away,” she says. “We’ve definitely seen lots of birds travel into the DMZ from Russia when they migrate their way down south.”
Katrina Marris adds that the tours touch on the related, but complicated, North and South Korean political history.
“I’m pretty sure that reunification will happen,” she predicts, “but when they unite, I hope that they keep the DMZ as a park.”
In spite of all the existing complications, the DMZ Forum is making efforts at peace through their ecologically minded intentions of reunification. Last year, they succeeded in planting 10,000 trees in North Korea.
So, many things are unresolved on the Korean peninsula: North Korea is incredibly secretive, the DMZ is largely inaccessible to scientists (or any individuals) who wish to understand the ecology there, the Tigerman has not succeeded in documenting the presence of any tigers (so far), and no one can accurately speculate how, when or if there will be a reunification between the two Koreas, or ways the DMZ would be affected as a result.
Based on the knowledge we have, however, we can certainly see that at this point in time, North Korea, South Korea, and the DMZ offer a scope of developmental differences all within the same, yet deeply divided, peninsula.