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Nature rises from war ravages
THE Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War, is not somewhere that typically first comes to mind when thinking of places to visit in South Korea.
Yet, there is a surprising abundance of interesting activities as well as natural wonders within the zone. These hidden gems have remained undiscovered largely because of its portrayal as a dangerous place.
The DMZ was created when the Panmunjeon Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, which put an end to fighting and created a two-kilometre wide buffer zone from the military demarcation line between North and South Korea.
Stationing of troops, establishing of military facilities, and placement of arms are forbidden within the DMZ, which roughly follows a 242 km long line along the 38th parallel of latitude. The zone mainly encompasses parts of the two provinces of Gyeonggi and Gangwon, as well as part of the Incheon Metropolitan City area.
The DMZ is the world's only natural environment created from an artificial event, the Cold War. Ironically it not only symbolises the deepest ravages of war but also signifies hopes for peace.
Unknown to many, the area has miraculously turned into a nature reserve where varied rare and endangered species of plants and animals have found refuge.
The area constituting the DMZ has been occupied for centuries, from prehistoric to modern times, and well-preserved historical and cultural resources are scattered around the area. This makes the DMZ a historical and cultural living museum.
South Korea's Civilian Controlled Line (CCL) designates an additional buffer zone 5 km to 20 km from the southern boundary of the DMZ, meant to control civilian activity to maintain safety outside of military exercise areas.
Within this area, a blessed natural environment has emerged where wildlife flourishes, with cranes in abundance, and martens and goats foraging for food.
Local residents have made efforts to turn this civilian controlled zone into a place where both people and animals can coexist in harmony.
For example, Yangji-ri in Cheorwon-gun in Gangwon Province is known as a village where migratory birds can be spotted. Many species of birds appear in the Togyo Reservoir on their winter migration. From early September, hundreds of thousands of wild geese, thousands of cranes, and about 10,000 white-naped cranes visit the reservoir.
Ironically, the controls under the DMZ, where these areas have been influenced by continuous military operations and activities, and been restricted to the public, have created shelters for wildlife which have gone through a very unique restoration process.
Since the woods are a restricted area, they are practically untouched except by nature. Forest fires periodically occur, and while this may be seen as damaging the forest, it also accelerates the growth of herbaceous plants which in turn creates habitats for herbivorous animals and regenerates new growth which leads to more biodiversity.
The forest ecosystem around the DMZ has been acknowledged by many. Ministry of Environment researchers found that from 1995 to 2000, the nests of migratory birds in the vast wetlands and plains have grown.
The whole DMZ is an important wetland ecosystem and an essential part of migration routes of north-east Asian migratory birds, such as the red-crowned crane, white-naped crane and hooded crane.
The Cheorwon plains, Panmunjeom and the mouth of Han-river where the Imjin and Han Rivers meet, play an important role as their final stopovers and every year, about 3,000 eagles spend the winter in the Cheorwon Plains.
The ecological value of the DMZ has also been recognised by the Smithsonian Institution and the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP). They have cooperated and directly supported research there.
The International Union for Conversation of Nature and Natural resources (IUCN ) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have also suggested creating a DMZ international environment park to both of two Koreas.
However, visiting this region is not so straightforward due to the restrictions. One must make prior reservations, as the number of visitors is increasing, due to the growing interest in its natural ecology.
Among the unique ecological attractions is the rare water spiders of Eundae-ri in Yeoncheon country. Previously believed to be extinct, the species, which lives in air pockets stuck to the underside of plants or stones, was rediscovered at Eundae-ri.
The Janghang Marshes in Goyang were designated as a wetland reservation by the Ministry of Environment in 2006 and have a wide diversity of organisms due to its brackish water, including endangered animals such as wildcats, white-tailed sea eagles and blackfaced spoonbills.
The Janghang Marshes are also one of the biggest willow habitats and wintering pond of migratory bird, with some 40 species spotted. It is however a military reservation with restricted entry for civilians.
The Bukhangang River in Hwacheon is the home to endangered species such as the Manchurian Trout. The upper reaches of the river have remained a well-preserved environment, and other endangered species such as the Keum River Mochi are also found here. On its banks, the restrictions on development have left the forest pristine and dense, and rare mammals such as elks and otters can be seen foraging.
Closer to Seoul, the Ganghwa Tidal Flat in Incheon's Ganghwa county is a showcase of how flora, fauna and humans can co-exist harmoniously.
Located between southern Ganghwa, Seongmodo Island and Boreumdo Island, the tidal flat is 53 times the size of Seoul's massive Yeouido recreational park,
It has tremendous value as a natural self-cleaning mechanism, for production of economic activity and for its natural marine ecosystem. It has been designated a natural monument in South Korea.
The area is a natural rest stop for migratory birds flying from Siberia and Alaska to their winter grounds in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. One of the world's rarest species, spoonbills, inhabits the flats and it is known as one of the most well-preserved mud flats in the world.