The DMZ After Kim: What Change in North Korea Could Mean for One of the World’s Richest Wildlife Refuges

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Anthony Plummer

A South Korea soldier looks across the border to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Heavily mined and fortified, the DMZ has unexpectedly become a refuge for endangered wildlife.

No one knows what will follow the apparent death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. The Hermit Kingdom remains a black box to experts—especially Americans—and while early reports suggest that Kim’s third son Kim Jong-un will succeed his father, we can’t tell how long he’ll remain in power, or whether the onetime Swiss boarding school student will seek to end North Korea’s isolation. (One of the best guides to the uncertain politics of a sudden transition of North Korean power is this 2009 report from the Council on Foreign Relations.)

If the world is lucky, though, the Dear Leader’s death could be the first step to a thawing of North Korea’s relations with the rest of the world, leading to an end to the more than half-century long standoff between the two Koreas. We should all hope for such a transition—North Koreans are desperately poor, the Orwellian country on the perpetual brink of famine, thanks largely to Pyongyang’s straightjacket of an economic policy, even as capitalist South Korea has grown from postwar poverty to become one of the richest economies in the world. But if peace does finally come to the Korean Peninsula, it might have an unexpected side effect: the end of one of the world’s richest—if unexpected—wildlife refuges.

MORE: Environment: Peaceful Coexistence in Korea

That’s the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the 2.5 mile wide, 155 mile strip of land that stretches across the width of the Korean Peninsula, separating the South and the North. The DMZ follows the Military Demarcation Line established in the 1953 Armistice Agreement between North and South Korea, the pact that suspended the war—though it did not end it, as the two nations are officially in a state of hostility. Heavily fortified and mined, the DMZ is a true no man’s land, and it’s been all but devoid of human activity for 61 years.

Unlike human beings, however, animals aren’t bound by the terms of the Armistice Agreement. Quite unexpectedly, the DMZ has become a haven for endangered wildlife, as TIME wrote back in 1978:

Abandoned rice terraces have turned into marshes, which are a favorite feeding ground for waterfowl. Old tank traps overgrown with weeds serve as cover for rabbits. Untamed thickets provide a refuge for herds of Asian river deer, each a small (3 ft. high) fanged version of its North American cousin.

In the rugged Taebaek Mountains, in the DMZ’s eastern half, lynx and Korean tigers now roam where few soldiers ever tread. Even movements around the truce village of Panmunjom can be hazardous, not because of stray gunshots, but because a parade of plump pheasants may suddenly appear in the path of a passing Jeep.

MORE: Kim’s Death: Jitters in Northeast Asia

The zone has become home to more than 60 endangered species, including Asiatic black bears and black-faced spoonbills. A survey released in 2010 revealed that many species found in the DMZ are almost extinct in other parts of South Korea, where postwar development and population growth has all but paved over the nation. The DMZ has become a vital resting place for birds along the East Asia Migratory Flyway, including the beautiful and endangered Manchurian cranes and Siberian herons. As Kim Ke Chung of the DMZ Forum—an organization dedicated to preserving the zone as a wildlife reserve—told the New York Times in 2004:

 The DMZ is the last major vestige of Korea’s natural heritage. It’s probably the only good thing to come out of the Korean War and cold war. So we have to preserve this as a nature reserve.

Indeed, that’s exactly what scientists like E.O. Wilson and environmental philanthropists like Ted Turner have called for, pushing the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) to make the DMZ a World Heritage site. Earlier this year South Korea filed an application with UNESCO to turn part of the DMZ into a “biosphere reserve,” similar to national parks like Yellowstone in the U.S. UNESCO is scheduled to discuss that application at a meeting next June, though North Korea would presumably need to be on board as well, since they have at equal claim to the land.

Now of course there’s the possibility that North Korea—which has remained frozen in time for so long—could change very, very quickly. And that’s why protection for the DMZ needs to come sooner rather than later. Land bordering the southern part of the DMZ has already been developed—though the pace slowed somewhat in recent years as relations between the two Koreas deteriorated—and peace would almost surely mean more residents, farms and roads.  If détente is established between the two Koreas and the fortifications and mines are finally removed inside the DMZ, it could mean disaster for the wildlife that live there.

The DMZ—once a pockmarked hellscape ripped apart by one of the most violent wars of the 20th century—demonstrates just how resilient wildlife can be. It gives us a glimpse into what nature can be without us. The fate of the cranes and cats of the DMZ is just a footnote to the geopolitical saga unfolding on the Korean Peninsula—and everyone would welcome freedom and unification on the Korean Peninsula—but it would be a shame if peace destroys this narrow slice of wildlife paradise.

MORE: Kim Jong Il’s Life: Myth, Mystery and Mayhem

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME