by Whit Gibbons

January 13, 2003

We have all heard more than we want to about Korea and nuclear weaponry, but what do we know about the environments of this land situated west of Japan and alongside Manchuria in China? A recent book, "Ecology of Korea," published by the International Congress of Ecology, provides environmental insights that are new even to ecologists. I had an opportunity to speak with one of the book's coeditors, Virginia Jin, a graduate student at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

The 23 chapters of the book are written primarily by South Korean ecologists and focus on the southern region. Among the topics typical of any book on the ecology of a region are ones on vegetation such as natural deciduous forests, factors causing disturbance to forest ecosystems, and the distribution of coastal vegetation related to soils. Other chapters address atmospheric interactions with Asia, insects and spiders associated with rice fields, and the status and protection of wildlife.

To get a perspective of size, North Korea is a little larger than South Korea, which is smaller than Alabama and larger than South Carolina. Both countries are on a 600-mile-long peninsula bordered by the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, with latitudes that range from the equivalent of northern Georgia to southern Michigan. All these characteristics greatly influence the climate of the region.

I asked Ms. Jin to characterize the regional habitats and general ecology in terms of a comparable region in North America. She indicated that "plant communities in South Korea are surprisingly similar to the temperate ecosystems of the eastern and southeastern United States. In fact, although the species are different, many of the woody plant genera are the same as those found in the Southeast. More than 70% of the Korean Peninsula is mountainous, and both deciduous and coniferous forests are present that appear similar to forest types in both the eastern and western United States." She also noted that Korea's climate results in a wealth of different ecosystems due to the land's geological features. These range from "coastal mudflats, marshes, and volcanic?rock coasts to high alpine ecosystems found on some of the higher mountain peaks."

Understandably, to an American, distinctions between North and South Korea are of interest, so I asked where the most meaningful ecological studies have been done. Her answer: "Unfortunately, very little is known about environmental studies in North Korea. Information exchange is limited due to their governmental controls, but there have been some disturbing stories about the condition of the North Korean environment. Some stories we have already heard about on U.S. television severe pollution of land, air, and water resources due to lack of management or underdeveloped and antiquated methods that are used to extract resources.

"I do not know if North Korean scientists are doing much about improving their environmental situation or even if they could, given the state of their economy. As far as `meaningful' research goes, I think most, if not all, of the environmental studies done on the peninsula are from South Korea at least, only the South Korean scientists are able to share their findings with the global scientific community at large."

One interesting environmental parallel between Korea and the United States is that some of the most effectively protected habitats are those associated with military activities. Our own bases are noted for the many natural habitats that have been protected from urbanization, industrialization, and agricultural development. Ms Jin stated that "South Korean ecologists have great interest in studying the forested ecosystems within the DMZ [demilitarized zone] between the two countries. This area spans the entire peninsula and has been completely undisturbed as a consequence of the military agreement following the Korean War. The zone itself presents huge opportunities for studying a largely undisturbed forest corridor."

Virginia Jin ended our discussion on a sobering note that should make ecologists and everyone else appreciate the environments we have to live and work in in America. "Unfortunately, conducting studies in the DMZ would be very difficult logistically even if the Koreas reunited, researchers may still be unable to study that area because of the existence of landmines and other military defenses that were left over after the Korean War."

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