Julia Adeney Thomas: The Exquisite Corpses of Nature and History: The Case of the Korean DMZ

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julia Adeney Thomas is Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and Toyota Visiting Professor, University of Michigan, 2009-10.]

Environmental protection in the Korean DMZ is purely accidental. In 1953, no one gave a thought to protecting wildlife when a temporary truce halted the fighting there. Instead, North and South Korea and their respective allies wanted only to end the human savagery that had killed 10 percent of the peninsula’s civilian population and resulted in military casualties numbering, on one side, 900,000 Chinese and 520,000 North Korean troops, and, on the other, 400,000 United Nations troops.1 The war began on 25 June 1950 when North Korea backed by the Soviet Union and the Chinese invaded South Korea in an attempt to reunify the nation, a nation divided in the last days of World War II. The 1953 truce, still in effect today, created a narrow no-man’s land roughly along the 38th parallel where no army is supposed to go. Although called the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, this thin ribbon of territory is decidedly militarized. As the American GIs there say, “there ain’t no D in the DMZ.”2 Unlike every other inch of dry land on the planet besides Antarctica, the Korean DMZ falls outside the control of any single military or any single nation. It is truly a no-man’s land. Reckless human violence has necessitated the evacuation of all human beings, and the unintended result is a zone left free for other species. Although the consequences of the continued low-grade war have been tragic for humans, other creatures have flourished because of our relative absence.

Two aspects of this situation fascinate me: the accidental nature of this area’s ecological salvation and the difficulties historians face as we try to represent this accidental quality. While making meaning out of the chaos of human history has always been difficult, the addition of physical forces, vast amounts of time, and the activities of non-human species magnify the complexity of our disciplinary enterprise, stretching it perhaps beyond recognition. In this essay, I will look first at the DMZ fauna and the human actions (and non-actions) that produced this “treasure house of ecosystems.”3 Then, I will consider the sheer randomness of the natural and political forces that have come together over the past sixty years to save a few creatures and a bit of land from devastation on a peninsula in northeast Asia and how that randomness challenges the separation of history from nature, a separation that in many ways undergirds the discipline. Oddities abound on all levels, material and abstract...

... Land

No one is permitted to live in the CCZ for security reasons, but farmers are allowed to enter to plant crops and harvest them. They then leave the gleaning to migratory birds, especially cranes, who flourish in the deserted fields.

Apparently, the line dividing the peninsula was quite casually drawn. Certainly it was drawn without reference to biodiversity.

The Korean DMZ is only four kilometers wide and 250 kilometers long, bisecting the peninsula along the thirty-eighth parallel. On one side is impoverished, secretive North Korea (the DPRK or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). On the other side is South Korea (the ROK or the Republic of Korea), a modern industrial state with the world’s eleventh largest economy. Immediately south of the DMZ’s border is an area called the Civilian Control Zone or the CCZ (sometimes referred to as the Civilian Control Area or CCA) which is currently 10 to 20 kilometers wide.11

On the night of August 10, 1945, as Soviet forces finally entered the war against imperial Japan, two young colonels, Dean Rusk and Charles H. Bonesteel, were told to partition the peninsula, carving out U.S. and U.S.S.R. zones of occupation. Without particular knowledge of Korea or even a precise map, Rusk and Bonesteel sliced it like a birthday cake, leaving the capital in the south and pushing in the knife a tad further north than they actually believed would be acceptable to the Soviets. In the event, the Soviets made no objections and halted at the agreed upon line.12 In 1950, things changed. North Korean leader Kim Il Sung persuaded Stalin to support his invasion of South Korea. When the horrific fighting played itself out in exhaustion, the Armistice Agreement of July 27 1953 established the DMZ pretty much along the same 38th parallel where the original partition ran.

In its early days, it was hardly more than a slab of plywood across the road. Today, it is heavily fortified.

Given all this activity, the DMZ is hardly a sanctuary in the sense of an undisturbed terrain, glorying under the dust of ages. It was farmland for an estimated 5,000 years and is currently full of deserted villages. The bones of tens of thousands of men still lie unburied between the lines, and military hardware litters the ground. Even today, army operations continue; military personnel are killed; and, the unresolved state of hostilities molds and disturbs the ecosystem. Forest fires, for instance, are lit for site clearing, and the North assiduously tunnels under the soil, creating military conduits that could flood South Korea with tens of thousands of North Korean troops in a few hours.13 Nevertheless, a tense semi-peace has reigned for almost sixty years inside the lines drawn by fear.

The semi-peace has preserved geographical features as well as fauna. The land of the DMZ and CCZ can be divided into four geographical zones: (1) the east coast region of lagoons, wetlands, and valleys, (2) the mid-eastern mountains and highland moors, (3) the inland mid-west region of the upper Hantan river watershed and lava plateau, and (4) the west coast hills, salt marshes and islands, each with its own peculiarities.14 Like the preservation of the animals of the DMZ, the preservation of this landscape is unintentional. Some agents in its creation are non-human physical forces like tectonic plates, water, and wind over eons of time and others are the usual suspects of human history like eager colonels, but neither non-human nor human entities willed the preservation of lagoons, high moors, or free-running rivers.

People and Politics

When we turn from the animals, land, and unintended consequences of Cold War politics to the environmentalists, we shift quite abruptly to the terrain of conscious agency, dedicated activity, and limited time frames. Historians are particularly comfortable here. People make plans to protect the environment; organizations and nations produce publications and archives; the time frame narrows from millions of years to months. Currently, the interests and concerns of governments, armies, and environmentalists serendipitously coalesce to protect the DMZ from human predation, but this could change overnight as the two countries come to terms. The goal of the conservationists is to turn serendipity into policy. They have a difficult task. An established peace, the rationalization of economic interests, concerns about North Korean poverty, and the imperatives of cultural unity could very well wipe “clean” the DMZ’s biological efflorescence and homogenize its diverse territory into modern grids of suburb and highway. Indeed, very little would stand in the way of this predation. According to the 2005 Yale Environmental Sustainability Index, the two Koreas do not get high marks for environmental stewardship. South Korea ranks 122nd and North Korea is in last place out of the 146 countries studied for their ability to protect their environments over the next several decades.15

South Korea’s low ranking is surprising given the vibrant environmental movement that sprang up as part of the democratization movement of the 1980s. By 2004, about half of the 24,000 registered NGOs in South Korea were environmental groups.16 However, according to South Korean sociologist Lee Hongkyun, the population’s seemingly high-level of environmental awareness is undercut by their inadequate recognition of the need to change their own behavior. Instead, South Koreans revel in increasing rates of personal consumption, while blaming environmental degradation on corporations and government policies catering to the very consumption they desire. As Lee puts it, South “Korean society seeks growth and expansion of the private space rather than preservation of shared space, i.e. the environment. They are unwilling to restrict the expansion of the private space in order to preserve shared space.”17 As for North Korea, its autarkic ideology of self-reliance (juche) does not appear to encompass a self-sustaining environment. Immediately after the war, through ruthless exploitation of mineral resources and forests, its economy soared. For the first twenty-five postwar years, North Korea was far richer than South Korea. Now both the economy and the environment are devastated.18 As Peter Hayes has noted recently, the degradation of the North Korean environment has accelerated since the early 1990s with the total forested area falling by roughly one-third over 15 years.19 It appears that neither mindless growth nor dire poverty has spurred heightened concern for resource conservation.

Today, cooperation between the Koreas grows by fits and starts with bad environmental consequences for the DMZ. Already overland highways and railways traverse the DMZ and promote “reconciliation, economic cooperation, and cultural and tourist exchanges . . . .”20 The South Korean Hyundai Corporation in partnership with the North Korean government has built an industrial park within sight of the DMZ.21 The Diamond Mountain resort, located just north of the DMZ, has hosted upwards of 1.9 million visitors, most of them South Korean, since opening in 1998...

... History: Problems of Agency and Narrative

What are historians to make of all these marvelously idiosyncratic animals, geographical forms, individuals, non-state, state, and multinational organizations? The numbers multiply almost to infinity like the bodhisattva of an esoteric mandala, the past, present and future, the human and the non-human, sentient beings and non-biological energies. Who are the agents of this history when purposeless evolutionary pressures, instinctual responses, casual acts, and passionate deliberations all shape the narrative? Where does this history take place with so many territories mapped by so many different creatures and physical forces? What is the time frame when eons of evolution and yesterday’s diplomatic initiatives both matter? What does it suggest to us when the narratives are so radically at odds? After all, the DMZ is a comedy of errors from the point of view of the gorals; a sixty-year tragedy from the point of view of the Koreans; a necessary evil from the perspective of American policy; an emblem of U.S. failure in the eyes of historian Bruce Cumings; a triumph for cranes; and, from the point of view of geology and physics, just another set of circumstances best conveyed without narrative tropes. Can a history encompass all this and yet remain a history? Environmental history’s multiplication and transformation of central tools of the discipline--agency and narrative--threaten the discipline’s very foundations, and many environmental historians do not realize how radical this challenge is...

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