The World Without Us - Alan Weisman (2007)

Part III

Chapter 13. The World Without War


AR CAN DAMN Earthly ecosystems to hell: witness Vietnam’s poisoned jungles. Yet without chemical additives, war curiously has often been nature’s salvation. During Nicaragua’s Contra War of the 1980s, with shellfish and timber exploitation paralyzed along the Miskito Coast, exhausted lobster beds and stands of Caribbean pine impressively rebounded.

That took less than a decade. And in just 50 years without humans. . . .

THE HILLSIDE IS heavily booby-trapped, which is why Ma Yong-Un admires it. Or rather, he admires the mature stands of daimyo oak, Korean willow, and bird cherry growing wherever land mines have kept people out.

Ma Yong-Un, who coordinates international campaigns at the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, is climbing through cottony November fog in a white propane-powered Kia van. His companions are conservation specialist Ahn Chang-Hee, wetlands ecologist Kim Kyung-Won, and wildlife photographers Park Jong-Hak and Jin Ik-Tae. They’ve just cleared a South Korean military checkpoint, slaloming through a maze of black and yellow concrete barriers as they entered this restricted area. The guards, in winter camouflage fatigues, set aside their Ml6s to greet the KFEM team—since the last time they were here, a year earlier, a sign was added stating that this post is also an environmental checkpoint for preservation of red-crowned cranes.

While waiting for their paperwork, Kim Kyung-Won had made note of several gray-headed woodpeckers, a pair of long-tailed tits, and the bell-like singing of a Chinese bulbul in the dense brush around the checkpoint. Now, as the van ascends, they flush a brace of ring-necked pheasants and several azure-winged magpies, beautiful birds no longer common elsewhere in Korea.

They have entered a strip of land five kilometers deep that lies just below South Korea’s northern limit, called the Civilian Control Zone. Nearly no one has lived in the CCZ for half a century, although farmers have been permitted to grow rice and ginseng here. Five more kilometers of dirt road, flanked by barbed wire filled with perching turtle doves and hung with red triangles warning of more minefields, and they reach a sign in Korean and English that says they are entering the Demilitarized Zone.

The DMZ, as it is called even in Korea, is 151 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, and has been a world essentially without people since September 6, 1953. A final exchange of prisoners had ended the Korean War— except, like the conflict that tore Cyprus in two, it never really ended. The division of the Korean Peninsula had begun when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan late in World War II, on the same day that the United States dropped a nuclear warhead on Hiroshima. Within a week, that war was over. An agreement by the Americans and the Soviets to split the administration of Korea, which Japan had occupied since 1910, became the hottest point of contact for what became known as the Cold War.

Abetted by its Chinese and Soviet communist mentors, North Korea invaded the South in 1950. Eventually, United Nations forces pushed them back. A 1953 truce ended what had become a stalemate along the original dividing line, the 38th parallel. A strip two kilometers on either side of it became the no-man’s-land known as the Demilitarized Zone.

Much of the DMZ runs through mountains. Where it follows the courses of rivers and streams, the actual demarcation line is in bottomland where, for 5,000 years before the hostilities began, people grew rice. Their abandoned paddies are now sown thickly with land mines. Since the armistice in 1953, other than brief military patrols or desperate, fleeing North Koreans, humans have barely set foot here.

In their absence, the netherworld between these enemy doppelgängers has filled with creatures that had practically nowhere else to go. One of the world’s most dangerous places became one of its most important— though inadvertent—refuges for wildlife that might otherwise have disappeared. Asiatic black bears, Eurasian lynx, musk deer, Chinese water deer, yellow-throated marten, an endangered mountain goat known as the goral, and the nearly vanished Amur leopard cling here to what may only be temporary life support—a slender fraction of the necessary range for a genetically healthy population of their kind. If everything north and south of Korea’s DMZ were suddenly to become a world without humans as well, they might have a chance to spread, multiply, reclaim their former realm, and flourish.

Ma Yong-Un and his conservation companions have no recollection of Korea without this geographic paradox binding its midriff. Now in their thirties, they were born in a nation that grew from poverty to prosperity while they themselves were growing. Immense economic success has made millions of South Koreans believe—like Americans, Western Europeans, and Japanese before them—that they can have everything. For these young men, that means having their country’s wildlife, too.

They arrive at a fortified observation bunker where South Korea has cheated. Here, the 151 miles of double fencing topped with coiled razor wire makes a sharp northward jog, following a promontory nearly one kilometer before looping back. That’s nearly half the distance that the truce obliges the two Koreas to maintain from the Demarcation Line, a faint string of posts down the DMZ’s middle that neither side is ever to approach.

“They do it, too,” Ma Yong-Un explains. Any place where a landform offers a view too irresistible to pass up, both sides seem to welcome opportunities to encroach and stare the other down. The camouflage paint on this artillery placement’s cinder blocks serves not to conceal but to display, like a belligerent cock bristling with threats and munitions in lieu of combs and feathers.

At the promontory’s northern edge, the DMZ opens into rugged fullness and vast emptiness for miles in either direction. Although each side has held fire since 1953, large loudspeakers atop South Korea’s positions have blasted regular insults, military anthems, and even strident themes like the William Tell Overture across the divide. The din has bounced off North Korean mountainsides that, over the decades, have been increasingly stripped bare for firewood. The inevitable tragic erosion has led to flooding, agricultural disasters, and famine. Should this entire peninsula one day be bereft of people, its ravaged northern half will take far longer to resuscitate biologically, while its southern half will leave far more infrastructure for nature to disassemble.

Korean DMZ.


Below, in the buffer separating these vast extremes, are 5,000-year-old rice paddies that have reverted to wetlands during the last half-century. As the Korean naturalists watch, cameras and spotting scopes poised, over the bulrushes glides a dazzling white squadron, 11 fliers in perfect formation.

And in perfect silence. These are living Korean national icons: red-crowned cranes—the largest, and, next to whooping cranes, rarest on Earth. They’re accompanied by four smaller white-naped cranes, also endangered. Just in from China and Siberia, the DMZ is where most of them winter. If it didn’t exist, they probably wouldn’t either.

They touch down lightly, disturbing no buried hair-triggers. Revered in Asia as sacred portents of luck and peace, the red-crowned cranes are blissfully oblivious trespassers who’ve wandered into the incandescent tension of 2 million troops faced off across this accidental wildlife sanctuary in bunkers every few dozen meters, mortars poised.

“Babies,” Kyung-Won whispers, and the lenses fix on two juvenile cranes wading in a streambed, their long bills rooting underwater for tubers, their crowns still juvenile brown. Only around 1,500 of these birds still exist, and each new birth is momentous.

Behind them, in a North Korean version of the Hollywood sign, the hills sprout whitewashed Korean characters that proclaim the supremacy of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and loathing for America. Their enemies retort with giant marquees whose thousands of lightbulbs flash messages visible for miles about the good life in the capitalist South. Every few hundred meters between observation posts bursting with propaganda is another armed bunker, with eyes peering through a slit at some opposite number across the chasm. The confrontation has burned through three generations of enemies now, many of them blood relatives.

Through all this menace float the cranes, landing in the sunny flats on both sides of the demarcation line to serenely graze on reeds. None of these men, rapt at the sight of such magnificent winged eminences, would ever admit to praying against peace, but the truth is that if not for the seething hostilities that keep this zone clear, these birds would likely face extinction. Just to the east, the suburbs of Seoul—a juggernaut approaching 20 million Homo sapiens—roll ever northward, banging into the CCZ, with developers poised to invade this tantalizing real estate whenever the concertina wire comes down. And North Korea, edging toward China’s example, has collaborated with its capitalistic archfoes on a border industrial megapark to tap its most abundant resource: hungry multitudes who will work cheap—and who will need housing.

The ecologists spend an hour watching the regal, nearly five-foot-tall birds in their element. All the while, they themselves are under the unblinking scrutiny of cheerless soldiers charged to defend the border. One approaches to inspect their tripod-mounted, 40-power Swarovski spotting scope. They show him the cranes. As he squints, with his muzzle-mounted grenade launcher pointing skyward, tinted afternoon shadows slant across North Korea’s bare mountainsides. A shaft of sunlight spears a white, battle-scarred ridge called T-Bone Hill, which juts up from the contested plain between the two halves of Korea. The soldier tells them how many heroes died defending it, and how many more of the hated enemy were slain.

They’ve heard this before. “Besides the difference between North and South Korea, you should tell people about the ecosystem we share,” Ma Yong-Un replies. He points to a water buck ascending the grassy slope. “One day this will all be one country, but there will still be reason to protect it.”

They return through a long, flat Civilian Control Zone valley carpeted with rice stubble. The soil is scored into herringbone furrows separated by glinting mirrors of early snowmelt that will re-freeze by nightfall. By December, temperatures will descend to -20°F The sky is hatched with patterns echoing the ploughed geometries below as lines of cranes soar in, joined by great airborne wedges of thousands of geese.

As the birds descend for an afternoon meal of rice harvest remains, the group stops for photographs and a quick census. There are 35 red-crowned cranes, looking straight out of a Japanese silk painting: glowing white, with cherry skullcaps and black necks. There are also 95 pink-legged, white-naped cranes. There are three species of geese: upland, bean, and some rare spotted snow geese, all protected from hunting in South Korea, so many that no one bothers counting them.

Thrilling as it was to spot cranes in the recovering natural DMZ wetlands, it’s far easier in these adjacent tilled lands, where they can feast on grains missed by mechanized harvesters. Would these birds benefit or suffer if humans were to disappear? Red-crowned cranes evolved to nibble reed shoots, but by now thousands of generations have been fed in human-engineered wetlands called rice paddies. If there were no more farmers, and if the bountiful rice fields of the CCZ also revert to marshes, would crane and geese populations decline?

“A rice paddy is not an ideal ecosystem for these cranes,” declares Kyung-Won, looking up from his spotting scope. “They need roots, not just grain. So many wetlands have turned into farms, they have no choice but to eat this for energy to survive winter.”

In the DMZ’s abandoned rice paddies, not enough reeds and canary grass have reappeared to support even these critically diminished populations, because both Koreas have built dams upstream. “Even in winter they pump water to grow vegetables in greenhouses, when the aquifers should be replenishing with snowfall,” says Kyung-Won.

If there were no agriculture trying to feed 20 million humans in Seoul, let alone North Korea, pumps that defy the very seasons would be stilled. Water would return, and wildlife with it. “For plants and animals, it would be such a relief,” says Kyung-Won. “A paradise.”

Like the DMZ itself: a killing place that became a haven to nearly vanished Asian creatures. Even the all-but-extinct Siberian tiger is rumored to hide here, though that may just be wishful dreaming. What these young naturalists want is exactly what their counterparts in Poland and Belarus beg for: a peace park, transmuted from a war zone. A coalition of international scientists called the DMZ Forum has tried to convince politicians of the potential for a face-saving peace, and even profit, if Korea’s two enemies together consecrate the one good thing they share.

“Think of a Korean Gettysburg and Yosemite rolled together,” says DMZ Forum co-founder, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. Even with the expensive prospect of clearing all the land mines, Wilson believes that tourism revenue could trump agriculture or development. “A hundred years from now, of all the things that happened here in the last century, what will matter most will be that park. It will be the legacy most treasured by the Korean people, and an example for the rest of the world to follow.”

It’s a sweet vision, but one on the verge of being swallowed by subdivisions that already crowd the DMZ. The Sunday after he returns to Seoul, Ma Yong-Un visits the Hwa Gye Sah Temple in the mountains north of town, one of Korea’s oldest Buddhist sanctuaries. In a pavilion adorned with carved dragons and gilded Bodhisattvas, he hears disciples chant the Diamond Sutra, in which Buddha teaches that all is like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow. Like the dew.

“The world is impermanent,” the gray-robed head monk, Hyon Gak Sunim, tells him afterward. “Like our body, we must let go of it.” Yet, he assures Ma Yong-Un, to try to preserve the planet isn’t a Zen paradox. “The body is essential for enlightenment. We have an obligation to take care of ours.”

But the sheer number of human bodies now makes caring for the Earth a particularly perplexing koan. Even the once-sacrosanct tranquility of Korea’s temples is under assault. To shorten the commute into Seoul from outlying suburbs, an eight-lane tunnel is being dug directly beneath this one.

“In this century,” insists E. O. Wilson, “we’ll develop an ethic of letting population gradually subside, until we reach a world with far less human impact.” He says this with the conviction of a scientist so steeped in probing the resilience of life that he claims it for his own species as well. But if land mines can be swept for tourists, real estate mongers will scheme for the same prime property. If a compromise results in developments surrounding a token history-nature theme park, the only viable species left in the DMZ will likely be our own.

Until, that is, the two Koreas—together nearly 100 million humans on a peninsula the size of Utah—finally topple under the weight of their resident Homo population. If, however, people simply vanish first, even though the DMZ may be too marginal to sustain Siberian tigers, “a few,” muses Wilson, “still prowl the mountains of the North Korean-Chinese borderlands.” His voice warms as he envisions them multiplying and fanning across Asia while lions work their way up southern Europe.

“Pretty quickly there would be a tremendous spread of remaining megafauna,” he continues. “Especially the carnivores. They’d make short work of our livestock. After a couple hundred years, few domestic animals would remain. Dogs would go feral, but they wouldn’t last long: they’d never be able to compete. There would be a huge shakeout involving species introduced wherever there’s been human disturbance.”

In fact, bets E. O. Wilson, all human attempts to improve on nature, such as our painstakingly bred horses, would revert to their origins. “If horses even survived, they would devolve back to Przewalski’s horse”—the only true wild horse remaining, of the Mongolian steppes.

“The plants, crops, and animal species man has wrought by his own hand would be wiped out in a century or two. Many others would also be gone, but there would still be birds and mammals. They’d just be smaller. The world would mostly look as it did before humanity came along. Like a wilderness.”