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The DMZ: An Opportunity for Science Diplomacy


By Bradley Sancken

What do the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Guantanamo Bay, and the Galapagos islands have in common? While two of the three serve important national security functions, all three share a quality that is unique and unlike anywhere else on the planet, vibrant untouched ecosystems that boast endangered and endemic species.

Since the creation of the DMZ in 1953, the 250 kilometer long and 4 kilometer wide boundary has been untouched by human development, allowing for habitats to grow and thrive. The South Korean government and NGOs, like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have advocated for the space to be used as a peace park, serving as a focal point of peace between North and South Korea in the hopes of promoting better relations. As of yet, North Korea has failed to embrace the proposal. Chairman of the DMZ Council, Kim Kwi-Gon, proposed a slightly different initiative of a Northeast Asia Ecological Network (NEAEcoNET), a cooperation amongst Northeast Asian nations for a continuous ecosystem. While both of these proposals touch on the concept of inter-peninsula cooperation by broadly engaging all levels of society, the DMZ presents a more specific opportunity that both North and South Korea can support for the sake of their own current and future unified national security, science diplomacy.

Now, what is science diplomacy and why does it hold potential for inter-Korean cooperation? In his speech at the U.S.-Korea Conference on Science, Technology and Entrepreneurship in Atlanta, former Congressman and now President and CEO of the Korea Economic Institute of America, Donald Manzullo, explained that science diplomacy holds many different forms: foreign policy discussions on environmental or scientific affairs that require professional scientific input, the act of foreign ministers discussing laws and agreements that might affect scientific affairs, or the union of international scientists for research. In the first two cases, policy makers and government representatives are the primary actors and scientists serve in consulting roles or as the affected body. The latter, however, is centered on the exchange and/or union of scientists for a common purpose or research goal. This last definition is promising for inter-Korean cooperation because it is not a negotiation among politicians or an attempt to push peace talks on the North. Instead, science diplomacy, in the case of the DMZ, would allow both states to create a joint research team to analyze the ecosystems and developments within the border. One benefit of a scientific mission to analyze and assess the DMZ’s ecosystems is that it is driven by the pursuit for knowledge and is less reliant on civilian engagement and the goodwill of both sides.

Not only is a scientific mission guaranteed to produce a better understanding about Korea’s primal ecosystem, it is also necessary for the future of the Korean peninsula’s health and conservation, making it an invaluable opportunity for North Korea.

Following the ecological disaster solutions seminar hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the first international seminar in North Korea since Kim Jong Un’s rise to power, Margaret Palmer, director of the University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, reported grave circumstances regarding North Korea’s environmental state. Barren fields and hills abound as remnants of both the Korean War and the drought and famine in the 1990s when forests were set ablaze by war or gathered for sources of fuel and nourishment. Overdevelopment of agricultural land, along with over-fertilization of soil with urea, has rendered the soil unbearable for seedlings to take root. This is only further intensified by the fact that without trees, no nutrients, such as carbon, are returned to the soil through decomposition, leaving the soil in poor condition.

Additionally, Dr. Palmer said that when visiting a national park she saw “maybe one or two birds, but other than that you don’t see any wildlife.” Animals are essential parts of the ecosystem helping pollination and the carbon cycle. On top of these issues, the Korean peninsula is subjected to annual Yellow Dust, or Hwang Sa (황사), an atmospheric stream of dust carried from Northern China and Mongolia. This dust carries pollutants, pesticides, viruses, fungi, bacteria, and heavy metals from China’s mass industrial productions, posing a large health risks, such as respiratory infections, for the Korean peninsula. Lastly, climate change and rising temperatures also pose threats to resources such as agriculture, forestry, water resources, and fisheries.

Despite having similar issues to North Korea, research from the Department of Ecology at Peking University suggests neighboring countries underwent a post-industrial environmental upswing, showing that there is a strong correlation between economic development and carbon budgets. While the researchers acknowledge there is not enough research concerning anthropogenic effects on the carbon cycle in East Asia, they observed that the rapid urbanization and economic development in Japan, China, and South Korea resulted in an “ecological transition,” where high CO2 levels are later reduced by vegetation recovery and accumulation in carbon sinks. However, in the case of North Korea, where large areas are without vegetation, it seems unlikely that mass revegetation will take place without a concerted effort by North Korea.

All in all, in light of reports on environmental degradation in North Korea, a research mission to better understand the DMZ’s native ecosystem is in South and North Korea’s best interests. By analyzing the native ecosystem, scientists, conservationists, and policymakers may make more informed decisions about agricultural production, reforestation, aquaculture, and other environmental solutions. In the short term, it is in South and North Korea’s best interest to maintain their environments in efforts curb the effects of immediate concerns, such as Hwang Sa. In the long term, with the assumption that the peninsula will be reunited, it will be essential that the entire country is on the same page environmentally, otherwise reunification and development will pose larger challenges.

Although it will not be the first time science has been used to engage with North Korea, perhaps a joint scientific mission would encourage North Korea to demine the DMZ for the sake of their own stability, knowledge, and health, and cooperate with South Korea for a better future.

Bradley Sancken holds a B.A. in Political Science and Asian Studies from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and is a former intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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