Conservationists in South Korea Rejoice and Weep

It has been a good news-bad news autumn for Korean conservationists. The good news: Yesterday, the government of the Republic of Korea (the South) officially came out in favor of turning the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates its territory from that of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the North) into an ecological preservation zone. The bad news: On 10 November, the South Korean government broke ground on its massive Four Rivers Project, which could result in more than a dozen new dams—and a wholesale reshaping of four major waterways that conservationists consider an ecological disaster.

The idea of turning the DMZ into a nature preserve and peace park has been discussed for more than a decade (Science, 10 October 1997, p. 242). The 4-kilometer-wide, 248-kilometer-long DMZ has been a no-man's land since an armistice halted hostilities in 1953. (Technically, the two Koreas are still at war. And calling it "demilitarized" is strange: The zone is planted with a couple of million land mines, and the armies massed on both sides make this the most heavily militarized border in the world.) In the intervening years, the DMZ became home to flora and fauna driven away from the rest of the peninsula by development (in the south) and poverty (in the north).

Yesterday's announcement by the south's Ministry of Public Administration and Security "is kind of historic," says Seung-ho Lee, a co-founder of the DMZ Forum, a nongovernmental organization that has been pushing for the zone to be made into a peace and ecology park. But Lee says they are concerned about ministry plans to attract industry and tourism facilities to areas adjacent to the DMZ. "In an ecological sense, those areas are linked" to the DMZ, says Lee.The ministry hopes to have a concrete proposal and cost estimates (including measures to deal with those land mines) to present by late 2010 to the North Korean government, which must also approve the plan. Lee says he is "cautiously optimistic" the gesture will be well received.

Meanwhile, work is picking up on the $19 billion Four Rivers Project, South Korea’s biggest-ever civil engineering program. The project "has been actively pushed as a key part of the national administration's 'Green Growth' policy, despite its heavy emphasis on construction over conservation and the anticipated massive impacts on wetland biodiversity and water quality," says Nial Moores, director of the conservation group Birds Korea in Busan. Moores is similarly skeptical of the conservation motivations trumpeted for the DMZ plans, calling the project "little more than yet another cynical attempt to package proposed large-scale infrastructure development as 'green.' "