Hope for Conservation and Peace in the Korean Demilitarized Zone

Todd Walters is currently attending the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia.

red-crowned crane, Japan

A red-crowned crane, one of many threatened species that has rebounded after years of minimal human impact in the Korean DMZ. (© Olivier Langrand)

It’s the most heavily militarized border in the world — a strip of land 248 km (155 miles) long and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) wide that is fenced with barbed wire and in some parts still contains land mines. But the “no man’s land” between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea (better known as North and South Korea, respectively) is far from lifeless; in fact, it has become a de facto protected area providing a refuge for rare species and a stopover point for migratory birds.

On top of the death toll and destruction that conflict wreaks on human societies, it also negatively impacts nature, which is considered just another form of collateral damage. Resources are intentionally destroyed as part of the conflict, or indirectly through increased exploitation by local people struggling to survive amid the chaos. But sometimes — as in the case of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — there’s a silver lining.

In a recent statement I presented at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 12th Conference of the Parties in Pyeongchang, South Korea, I expressed the hope of the global community that the two Koreas can use this rebounding wilderness as an opportunity to build peace between them.

Building Peace from the Legacy of War

The Korean DMZ was established in 1953 as part of a cease-fire agreement between North and South Korea, the United Nations (led by the United States) and the Soviet Union. Spanning the width of the Korean Peninsula, the DMZ delineated the border between the two countries along the 38th parallel latitude. The no man’s land was established by setting land mines and barbed wire fences 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) north and south of the actual border line — inadvertently creating a strip of land in the middle that has seen little to no human impact for the past 61 years.

Left alone, the ecosystems contained within the DMZ have largely regenerated from the impacts of war and are providing much-needed wildlife habitat in one of the world’s most densely populated regions.

With habitat restoration came the return of wildlife decimated by the conflict, especially threatened species like the water deer, red-crowned crane, cinereous vulture and a mountain goat called the Amur goral. In addition, the rivers, lakes and wetlands within this narrow strip of land became a primary stopover for migrating bird species like the whooper swan and black scoter, as well as habitat for the Manchurian trout.

Tongil-Jeonmangdae (Unification Observatory) , South Korea

View of North Korea from Tongil-Jeonmangdae (Unification Observatory) in South Korea. (© Todd Walters)

A Statement to the World

I have been working in the environmental peacebuilding field for almost a decade. I began at the Environmental Change and Security Program before founding International Peace Park Expeditions, where we apply experiential learning to teach environmental peacebuilding in field-based expeditions. I also have participated in international initiatives like the Environmental Peacebuilding Academy, a new venture recently founded by UNEP and the Environmental Law Institute.

At last month’s CBD meeting in South Korea, I was invited by the Korean National Park Service to present a statement on transboundary conservation for biodiversity and peace to the International Symposium on Biodiversity Conservation and Peace Building in the Korean DMZ.

The statement was written by the chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas Transboundary Conservation Specialist Group, Maja Vasilijevic, with input from Korean National Park’s Hag Yeong Heo and myself. Within it, we highlighted the role that transboundary protection can play in biodiversity conservation and peacebuilding — specifically in achieving conservation goals across international borders while supporting sustainable development and the promotion of peace. I cited several examples, such as the Cordillera del Condor Peace Park between Ecuador and Peru, the European Green Belt creating a conservation corridor along the former Iron Curtain, and the transfrontier conservation areas that South Africa has created with all seven of its neighboring countries.

We hope that by removing the barbed wire fences and land mines, North and South Korea can harness the potential of environmental peacebuilding and use the region as a tool to build frameworks of collaboration.

Our statement calls upon the world’s nations, international organizations and the governments of both Koreas to take action in a number of ways. The global community should support transboundary dialogue at local, national and/or regional levels, engaging all relevant sectors of society in the governance of transboundary conservation areas through inclusive approaches which generate social, cultural and economic benefits for local communities and indigenous peoples.

We also encourage the exchange of knowledge between scientists, protected area managers, civil society and other interested parties from the two Koreas and other countries in the region. If established, the future Korean DMZ Peace and Nature Park could be at the heart of cooperative conservation efforts in northeast Asia, highlighting the important natural and cultural values and the historical importance of the area, and connecting it to biodiversity conservation in the wider region.

Finally, we called upon the North and South Korean governments to:

  • Work together to apply for international recognition of the DMZ as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, highlighting the DMZ’s function as an area of coexistence between man and nature that is in line with the principles of sustainable development;
  • Consider establishing a permanent ecological monitoring station and sites within the DMZ to foster scientific and educational cooperation between scientists, professors and students from North and South Korea and the international community;
  • Secure the long-term protection of habitats and species in the DMZ and adjoining areas while carefully balancing socioeconomic progress and conservation, and undertaking a coordinated approach in planning the future of the DMZ.

This week I’m in Sydney for the World Parks Congress, where along with our colleagues at the International Institute for Sustainable Development and World Conservation Society, CI’s Policy Center for Environment and Peace will be presenting a panel entitled “Conservation and Peacebuilding: Tools and Practice.”

As government ministers and conservationists from around the world gather for this once-a-decade meeting, I hope that the role protected areas can play in building peace will be highlighted, and that participants will recognize their potential as a tool for international diplomacy in the 21st century.

Todd Walters is a fellow in CI’s Policy Center for Environment and Peace. He is also a member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas Transboundary Conservation Specialist Group. Reach Todd via email at todd@peaceparkexpeditions.org.


  1. Karie Whitman says

    If successful, this peace park will have quite the origin story. I wonder to what extent the characteristics that give rise to peace parks are specific to their unique political and cultural climates, and to what extent certain characteristics can be used as indicators of potential success of peace parks created in other areas. Presumably every situation is different, but I am curious about what successful peace parks have in common – although admittedly the definition of “successful” will also differ from park to park. In any case, I will cross my fingers for the establishment of the Korean DMZ Peace and Nature Park.

    (P.S. Hi, Todd! I met you briefly when you visited Ohio University last year, and I’m also a student in Geoff’s peacebuilding class which you spoke with via Skype recently.)

  2. Todd Walters says

    Thanks Karie,
    If you are looking for a PhD topic, you just nailed it.
    There are currently no real indicators to measure the success of International Peace Parks in fulfilling their mission.

    The IUCN Transboundary Conservation Specialist Group (which I am a member) defines “Parks for Peace” as “Transboundary protected areas that are formally dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and to the promotion of peace and co-operation”.

    So that is a starting point from which to begin to parse out the components of each of those broad categories. This is something I will be working on in the future; and if you are interested we are always looking for students who can support this type of research.

    Lastly – I think the aspect of Peace Parks that are so powerful is that that they are a concept that can be applied in different ways around the world dependent on local context – the topography, geology, politics, history, cultural uniqueness, biodiversity, etc. So customization to local context is essential to effectiveness and long term sustainability.

  3. Alec says

    It’s a very welcome development that the South Korean government has embraced the peace park concept in the DMZ. However, it will remain a difficult sell to the North Koreans. Preoccupied with hard security concerns, Pyongyang would link the establishment of a peace park with the need for a peace treaty. And this is not bilateral but also concerns the U.S. and other actors. The old adage would seem to apply here – peace before park. Moreover, whilst North Korea sees the financial advantage of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mt. Kumgang tourist resort, my fear is that Pyongyang has a very different calculus to Seoul and does not readily see any advantage for it in creating a peace park. It would likely seek to extract concessions from South Korea before taking further steps. However, while the current (geo-)political environment might be difficult, that is not to say that we should not try through any means possible. I think the idea of a joint ecological monitoring mission is a great first step and confidence-building measure. Indeed, the establishment of a peace park could be integrated and phased within a roadmap framework for overall peace on the Korean Peninsula. I dream of hiking the length of the DMZ one day together with Koreans from both sides of this artificial divide. No matter how difficult, it is a vision worth striving for.

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