IS KOREA'S ECOLOGY?
by Whit Gibbons
January 13, 2003
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
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.
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
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
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