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DMZ: A Haven For Many Species Of Wildlife


Over the past year, diplomacy has reduced military tensions along the last remaining Cold War frontier, the DMZ, or the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. In this next story, NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to that de facto border, a place that has been long off-limits to humans and has become a haven for many species of wildlife.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: We're just a few minutes into a drive from the city of Paju, north of Seoul, headed to the DMZ. And already, we're seeing animals.

PYO GINA: If you look really closely, you'll see these little, tiny brown birds flitting about in groups of 10s and 20s. Those are probably rustic buntings or parrotbills.

KUHN: It's just teeming with wildlife everywhere you look.

I'm with Pyo Gina, an intern with an environmental group called the DMZ Ecology Research Institute. The group's director, Kim Seung-ho, is behind the wheel, calling out the number and species of birds he spots while Gina writes them down.

KIM SEUNG-HO: (Foreign language spoken).

PYO: Ooh.

KUHN: Kim suddenly pulls over and points his camera out the window at some birds.


KUHN: What are they?

PYO: They are white-naped cranes. They're an endangered species.


KUHN: As the seasons change, white-tailed sea eagles, geese, ospreys and other species migrate in and out of the area. It's been especially safe for them since the end of the Korean War more than six decades ago. Minefields, fences, barbed wire and opposing armies deployed along the 155-mile-long DMZ keep humans out.

Next, we come to a spot overlooking the Imjin River, which flows from North Korea through the DMZ and into South Korea before veering west and emptying into the Yellow Sea. We're actually in an area just outside the DMZ proper. It's a buffer zone that extends about 6 miles south of the center line through the DMZ called the Civilian Control Zone. The military restricts access to the area. And the main human activity here, Kim Seung-ho explains, is farming

KIM: (Through interpreter) Seventy percent of birds live around people. Since the old days, birds have lived on byproducts from farming. That's why birds like geese and cranes, who like leftover grains, come here to spend winters and go inside the DMZ only to sleep.

KUHN: In other words, the Civilian Control Zone and its rice paddies are the birds' dining room. And the DMZ proper is their bedroom. But recent diplomacy between the U.S. and North and South Korea has allowed all sides to pull troops and weapons back from the DMZ. Now South Korea's government plans to build hiking trails inside the zone. Local governments would like to open the area to tourism.

Over lunch at a nearby restaurant, Kim Seung-ho says he's worried.

KIM: (Through interpreter) It's a sad reality that we have preserved the DMZ not from an ethical point of view that we value the environment but because people are afraid of losing their lives.

KUHN: So Kim's advice for now is to leave the land mines in place and try to keep things as they are as much as possible. He says he's concerned about preserving nature not just for its own sake but because he believes it will help solve many of mankind's problems in future.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Paju City, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.