Korean Demilitarized Zone
DMZ outlined in yellow.
The DMZ from the ground.
Within the boundaries of the DMZ there are 2,900 plant species, 70 mammal species, 320 types of bird, and over 80 species of fish. Some of the more interesting creatures include the Asiatic black bear, leopards, and lynx. There are also several animal species that only live within the DMZ. The DMZ plays host to countless numbers of birds each year as they migrate throughout eastern Asia and Japan. Approximately 1/3rd of all Red-crowned cranes (their entire wild population is less than 3,000) use the DMZ during migration.
Pair of Red-Crowned Cranes in flight.
National Coastal Fence
Dotted along the fence are small "border guard" shacks like this one.
This draconian system has resulted in vast stretches of undisturbed beaches and pockets of forested land in an otherwise barren environment, as huge portions of the country have been denuded of trees for agriculture and fire wood. The distance between the fence and the sea can range from 50 feet to over a thousand. Depending on the measurements, this thin green line actually adds up to several square miles (4 to 25) of relatively untouched territory. The key in all of this is coastal.
Notice the difference in tree density on either side of the fence.
From the destruction of thousand year old sand dunes, to rare plant species, to animal breeding and feeding grounds, coastal regions the world over are under constant threat. This small strip of land provides a protected zone for wildlife relatively free from those threats.
3D satellite imagery of ~100 square miles of forest. Nothing but a few footpaths traverse the area.
North Korea had vast forests until the 1980s, when drastic changes caused a dramatic decline in both the quantity and quality of many forested areas. According to the World Bank, North Korea's forests covered 46% of the country in 2012, down from 53% in 2003 (compared to ~33% forest cover in the US). The amount of forest is due to the mountainous nature of North Korea, which is actually partially to blame for the decline in forests. All land belongs to the government and its use is tightly controlled. Only 22% of the country's land is arable, meaning that the government has undertaken a number of steps to increase agricultural production by cutting down forests to make room for farming. The poorly planned nature of these schemes has led to denuded hillsides surrounding every inhabited area which, in turn, cause devastating flooding and landslides each time a major rain occurs (and that happens often).
Landscape of North Korea.
Despite this, there are still plenty of forests, and unlike regions in Russia, China, and South America, where illegal logging and settlement have wreaked havoc on many the forests there, the tight controls on movement and land use has resulted in some spectacular stretches of forest. Of those, around 9.3% are old growth forest (the US has less than 2%). Unfortunately, the remaining forests are being cut down at an ever increasing rate and their future is in great doubt.
Beleive it or not, North Korea has several national parks. The primary parks are: Baekdu-san (Mount Paektu), Ch'ilposan, Lake Bujo, Myohyang-san, Geumgang-san (Kumgangsan), and Guwol-san.
The Mt. Paektu region has the world's highest plant diversity in such a cool and temperate environment. It is also home to a few endangered Siberian tigers (with a global population of under 1,000).
A pair of Siberian Tigers.
Mt. Paektu, or Baekdu, is the highest mountain in North Korea at 9,003 ft (2,744 m). It lies on the border between the DPRK and China and is considered, by both Koreas, to be the legendary ancestral home of the Korean people. The volcanic mountain, with its deep blue crater lake (called "Heaven Lake") and snow-capped sides plays an important role in North Korean propaganda as well as the country's personality cult. The North claims that Kim Il-Sung launched his "victorious" strike against the imperialist invaders from a secret base on the side of the mountain and that his son, Kim Jong-il, was born near the lake (despite actually being born in Russia). The lake even has its own lake monster, the Lake Tianchi Monster, which was first reported in 1903.
A view of Heaven Lake.
The image below shows the Mt. Paektu region. The mountain is in the upper left corner, the yellow line is the China/DPRK border. The brown outline, encompassing roughly 250 square miles, outlines forested areas that show very clear signs of logging. The red markers are military sites, the rest show the positions of villas and the primary leadership compound with an entire support village next to it, as well as other locations.
Click for larger view.
Mount Kumgang, or "Diamond Mountain", is a 5,375 foot (1,638 m) high mountain just a few miles from the DMZ. It lies within the 205 square mile "Mount Kumgang National Park" and began as a joint-venture with South Korea to improve relations and tourism. The Park has been heavily subsidized by South Korean companies (as well as the government) but has been closed for several years following the killing of a South Korean tourist by North Korean guards. Currently, only tours operated on the North Korean side are permitted, making the Park effectively out of reach for most western tourists and South Koreans (who made up the bulk of visitors).
Mountain view. Image source Flicker.
Despite the current situation, Mount Kumgang remains one of the most beautiful places in North Korea. Roughly 96 square miles of the Park have been recognized as an "Important Bird Area" by BirdLife International because it supports Red-crowned Cranes. The mountain itself is made up of granite and diorite which has been exposed over the eons. This weathering has created over 10,000 interesting stone formations and countless waterfalls.
The very famous "Nine Pools".
A beautiful scene from one of the lakes. Source Flicker.
The Kuryong Falls are a striking feature. They drop 246 feet to Kuryong Lake, which according to legend, was the home of nine dragons that defended the mountain.
The Park contains mixed broadleaf and coniferous forests.
The Park abuts the Sea of Japan and contains several lagoons. Of them, Samil Lagoon is by far the most lovely.
View of Samil Lagoon.
While portions of the Kumgang tourist region are under threat from continued development, the heart of the area, namely the mountains, do seem generally free from settlement and deforestation. It is, truly, the Diamond Mountain.
Image notes: pictures come from Wikimedia Commons or compiled from Google Earth unless otherwise noted.
--Jacob Bogle 6/8/2014