Ecotourism in Korea’s DMZ?

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The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea�once described by Bill Clinton as �the scariest place on earth��is being promoted as an ecotourism destination.

Located an hour north of Seoul, the 249-kilometer (155-mile) long, 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) wide DMZ is known more for its armed soldiers, land mines and barbed wire than for being an oasis for rare flora and fauna. However, that is about to change.

Relatively untouched since 1953, when the two Koreas reached an armistice to halt the Korean War, the heavily fortified area is home to thousands of plant and animal species. As reported by The Guardian, environmentalists estimate there are at least 2,900 plant species, 70 mammals and 320 types of bird thriving in the area. There have also been unconfirmed sightings of rare tigers and leopards.

�The ecosystem in the DMZ is unique because it has been able to evolve over 56 years without human disturbance,� Kim Kwi Gon, professor of environmental planning and design at Seoul National University, told the Earth Times.

Kim is planning to undertake an ecological survey into the DMZ and hopes that the results will encourage the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate the zone as an official nature reserve by 2012.

Government authorities are also eager to rebrand the DMZ and promote it as a nature haven. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is collaborating with the Korea Tourism Organization to develop part of the buffer into a �Peace and Life Zone� (PLZ). The aim is to encourage peace and preserve the ecology, history and culture of the area while promoting tourist activities such as hiking. Because of high security and limited civilian access to the DMZ, independent tourists and tour groups will require permission from the Ministry of Defense.

Hall Healy, president of The DMZ Forum, a US-based non-governmental organization, argues that the untouched wetlands and ecosystems of the DMZ are a veritable gold mine. According to the Korea Society, he believes that if developed responsibly, the DMZ could provide Koreans with clean drinking water and trillions of won in revenue, as well as creating jobs in ecotourism, sustainable agriculture and ecosystem services.

While governments on both sides of the DMZ plan to develop designated border areas into a center for inter-Korean cooperation, international peace and ecological protection, it remains unknown how the project will affect tense relations between North and South Korea.

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