Accidental Sanctuary

Courtesy of Audubon

Accidental Sanctuary

In Korea's demilitarized zone, two of the world's rarest crane species cling to a precarious haven amid mounting military tensions and encroaching development.

Published: 06/25/2014

This story originally appeared in the July-August 1996 issue.

In the late autumn of 1950, small flocks of migrating red-crowned and white-naped cranes were flared from their winter feeding grounds in the border region between North and South Korea by immense and scaring bursts of light and noise. The War of June 25, as the South Koreans called it—after the date when North Korea invaded the South through the Panmunjom Valley—was well under way, in all its uproar of explosives and artillery. For conspicuous, large wary birds like the wild cranes, which require large reaches of silent, open country and clean water, the war made the Koreas all but uninhabitable.

The armistice signed at Panmunjom in 1953 established a frontier between the Koreas that was roughly defined by the narrow waist of the peninsula, and this time the border was consolidated by a so-called demilitarized zone (DMZ), which was heavily fortified by mines and tank traps, huge embankments, and formidably high barbed-wire fences. Zealously enforced by the hard-nosed soldiery on both sides, these barriers forbade all access to a zone as much as 2.5 miles across, extending from the Yellow Sea all the way east to the Sea of Japan. In addition, this DMZ was buffered on the South Korean side by a CCZ, or Civilian Control Zone, of comparable width, where controlled farming—but no habitation—was permitted. 

What was created in this no-man’s-land was a wildlife refuge, several miles across and 150 miles long (about 375 square miles altogether), with streams and springs that remained open all winter—the most fiercely protected and most peculiar wildlife sanctuary anywhere on earth, and an accidental paradise for the great cranes. 

A region from which Homo sapiens are excluded is inevitably hospitable to other species, but since a bird sanctuary was scarcely what the combatants had in mind, the return of the great cranes passed as unremarked as had their wartime disappearance from the country. Not until November 1961 did Ben King, a U.S. Army lieutenant stationed in South Korea, report that a flock of some 2,300 white-naped cranes, apparently en route to Japan, had rested a few days on the mudflats in the estuary of the Han and Imjin rivers, at the Yellow Sea. In the years that followed, both the white-naped crane (Grus vipio) and the red-crowned crane (G. japonensis) were reported in the winter months along the Imjin and in the nearby Panmunjom Valley. But not until the early 1970s were there reports that both species were overwintering in the Cholwon Basin, in the central mountains, after migrating south from the Amur River watershed in northeastern China and far eastern Siberia. By an astonishing irony, the Han-Imjin and the Cholwon—perhaps the two regions most bitterly contested during the war—had become the most significant winter crane habitat left in Korea. 

Today, after four decades of peace, the no-man’s-land is seriously threatened, less by the ever-escalating military activities than by grandiose plans for industrial and municipal development, because the economic boom in the new Asia has changed the entire face of South Korea and has drawn attention to the former war zone as the last large tract of undeveloped land on the peninsula. Due to its military rule and restricted location, the border region is well behind the rest of South Korea in its economy. Also, Koreans on both sides are aware that from a financial point of view (the near-unanimous point of view in the new Asia), a valuable resource is being “wasted.” And so, increasingly, there is talk of large-scale development of the buffer zone, whether or not the two countries heal their differences.

The threat to two of the rarest and most beautiful of the earth’s creatures—not in the name of human welfare but of commerce—is real and imminent. Were their last Korean wintering grounds to be eliminated, the prospects for red-crowned and white-naped cranes might suffer severely. This possibility is alarming to conservationists, especially to George Archibald of the International Crane Foundation (ICF), in Wisconsin, who in the winter of 1996 made a journey to the DMZ with some concerned Korean friends, seeking ways to avert such a calamity. Dr. Archibald was kind enough to invite me to join him, and on January 27 he met me at the Seoul airport, accompanied by Kim Sooil, an assistance professor of environmental biology at the Korean National University of Education and an adviser to the Ministry of the Environment. Escorting them was Chung Kwang-Joon, a Seoul businessman who, like Dr. Kim, is a charter member of the Korean Association for Bird Protection (KABP), founded in 1980.

All but destroyed during the Korea War, when it was still a small provincial city, modern Seoul, viewed from the air at night, is a vast, radiant display of colored lights set about the inky reaches of the great Han River. Due to congested traffic caused by new construction on all sides, the trip into the city is a long one. Korea is sometimes called the Land of the Morning Calm, and the peaceful doorbell of my Seoul hotel room simulated birdsong, but it was clear on that first evening that this vestigial longing for harmony with the natural world could only be quaint and elegiac in the new Korea.  

Early next morning we set out for the Cholwon in the glad company of 10 or 12 KABP members, all of them males in winter plumage of black-and-white-checked caps with black earflaps, suitably emblazoned with an insignia of turumi, the red-crowned crane. Friendly and boisterous, they wave a white banner honoring the ICF and hail Dr. Archibald as “Archie” while referring formally to one another as “Mr.” So-and-so.

In Kim Sooil’s opinion, and George Archibald’s, too, the KABP represents at the very least the beginning of a shift in South Korea’s national consciousness in regard to wildlife, and it has already established a winter feeding program for the cranes at Cholwon. “We are not yet a scientific society,” admits Dr. Kim, an informed and dedicated conservationist and the only professional naturalist in the KABP. “We are still working with the heart rather than the brain.”

Before we depart, Mr. Chung leans forward and pinches my leg in several places—as it turns out, merely to satisfy himself that I am wearing long johns, for the Cholwon Basin, scene of so many bitter winter battles, is one of the highest and coldest regions in South Korea.

I travel north in the good company of Kim Sooil, who teaches me a good deal about crane history in this country during the drive. In former days, the red-crowned crane especially was a favored companion of sages, scholars, and musicians, who are commonly portrayed in communion with the elegant turumi—in many cases, as tall as their human companions. As in Japan, when one speaks of “the crane,” it is this species one refers to. In both countries, the white-naped crane is referred to as “the gray crane,” an entirely inadequate name for a splendid silver-gray, black, and white bird with a gold eye and a fiery red disk on the side of the face—perhaps the one rival to turumi as the most beautiful of the world’s 15 crane species. Despite their reverence for these birds, says Dr. Kim, the pragmatic Koreans commonly killed cranes and sold their plumage as souvenirs to the Japanese Occupation of 1910–1945, and there are reports that turumi are now killed by poachers for the international trade in animal parts that is also threatening such species as the tiger.

In 1986 the presence of a third rare crane—the hooded crane (Grus monacha)—was confirmed in the vicinity of the Naktong and Kumho rivers, to the south. But by that time, the economic boom that would make this country the wonder of Asia was under way, and today a vital staging area and winter habitat for this shy woodland species of north China and Siberia is being devastated by land reclamation and construction. Only a few years ago the Naktong flock of hooded cranes was estimated at 250 birds; this year perhaps 80 pick disconsolately around the proliferating domes of white vinyl greenhouses, while two of this small country’s seven automakers build new factories on the last open land across the river.

Grus monacha has lost,” Kim Sooil pronounces gloomily. “There is no more hope for our hooded crane.” Passionate about wildlife since boyhood, he makes no attempt to disguise his sorrow over the almost total destruction of Korea’s birdlife, including the waterbirds common in his youth along the Han, where the last wetlands and marshy edges were tidied up with concrete embankments for the 1988 Summer Olympics.

From Seoul to the Cholwon Basin is no more than 70 miles, but the going is slow due to remorseless traffic as well as icy roads and snow, which makes the road more perilous as it gains altitude. Beyond the old post-World War II frontier, two-thirds of the way to Cholwon, army checkpoints and military vehicles increase, with a grim shift in atmosphere that intensifies all the way north to the Civilian Control Zone.

The flat plain of the Cholwon Basin, with its rich and very valuable volcanic soil, runs straight across the border, penetrating deep into North Korea, which is why this region, known in the Korean War as the Iron Triangle, was so fiercely contested in the weeks preceding the armistice accord of 1953. The plain is broken and surrounded by small, sudden mountains—the odd, picturesque rock eruptions seen in the mists of so many Oriental paintings—that because they became strategically important were often the scenes of the worst loss of life.

“The crane,” says Kim Sooil,” is well known to bring long life and good fortune, and crane images are seen everywhere at the New Year, when we make our wishes. And now—because they are most numerous in this border region, where so many thousands of men died before the armistice—the crane is our symbol of peace. And that is because reunification is our dream.”

I note that Mr. Chung refers to Mount Paektu, in North Korea, as “the highest mountain in our country.” Like many older Korean people—he is 62—he has not reconciled himself to the partition of Korea imposed by the superpowers after World War II, which extended the humiliating misery caused by 35 years of Japanese occupation. 

Dr. Kim’s parents were born in what is now called North Korea and are still heartbroken by the separation. Kim Sooil himself grew up under the dictatorship of the late South Korea president Park Chung Hee, who often used the ideological dispute between Communism and the West to oppress his people, much as the North Korean government does today. Paranoia exists on both sides, inflamed by the North’s chronic acts of terrorism, and despite vain efforts by a National Board of Unification, most of these men think reunification is far away. 

Since the two Koreas have never signed a peace treaty, they remain in an official state of war. In early April, nine weeks after our departure, North Korea accused the South of deploying weapons in the DMZ, which it said it would no longer respect, and for the next three days it sent armed troops in the zone in what were described as “self-defensive measures.” These actions preceded elections in South Korea as well as a visit by President Bill Clinton, and probably they represent no more than the latest in a long series of provocations. Because of the repeated threats, however, the South lives in a nervous state of perpetual preparedness, ever strengthening and upgrading its defenses, even though virtually everyone believes that North Korea is on the brink of economic implosion and self-destruction. As recently as 1993, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and seemed to be preparing for renewed war, and what is feared here is a last, desperate military adventure, even a nuclear or chemical attack, designed to take the Enemy down with it. 

As the road ascends into the central mountains, the country changes, but in fact there is no real country to be seen, only clusters of white vinyl greenhouses crowded between dry, stubbled rice paddies and small, pinched yards and habitations, all the way north to the Civilian Control Zone. There is new construction everywhere the sore eye turns. The only wild things are the street-smart black-billed magpie and the tree sparrow, and even these tough city birds are few. 

Entering the CCZ, one has a brief illusion of farm landscape, but army bases and fortifications are everywhere in evidence, and on every hill are sentry posts and bunkers. Near the first anti-tank barriers is the somber, ruined shell of what was once the North Korean Communist Headquarters, and the meager woods—thin fringes of second growth on rocky outcrops and along the roads—are surrounded by barbed-wire strands hung with inverted red triangles marked LAND MINES, some of which—but by no means all—are left over from the Korean War. At one checkpoint, an ominous sign reads, “Obedience Is Equivalent to Life,” which Dr. Kim, who served three years in the South Korean Army (North Korean boys, he says, serve 10), interprets cheerfully to mean “Obey or Be Killed.” 

The snow diminishes and the sun comes dimly through the winter fog shrouding the paddies, and over a hill beyond the hollow, war-burned building, two white-naped cranes cross the winter morning in misty silhouette. Farther on a family of three turumi, whiter than the snow, share a paddy with white-fronted geese; not far beyond, three white-naped cranes inspect a snowy corn patch on a rock-knoll hillside, ignoring its decrepit scarecrow as they pick unhurriedly among the scattered stalks. Soon numerous cranes of both species start to appear in fields and along embankments, most of them in small family parties, keeping a safe distance from the road.

In the Cholwon region of the DMZ, the extensive rice fields of the CCZ, reconstituted in the 1970s, are especially critical to the wintering birds, which depend on waste grain in the harvested paddies for their primary food. Before the war, these fields were harvested by hand, and any waste grain was taken by the ducks and chickens that were turned out into the paddies by the peasants, so the wintering cranes were probably very few. Today the human inhabitants are gone and the fields are machine harvested, and for the cranes, which appear after the harvest in late October and November, the paddies offer a rich gleaning of waste grain, together with plentiful mudfish, frogs, and snails.

In addition to food, the open, treeless fields provide protection for the wary birds, which require an unobstructed view in all directions. Easily disturbed by soldiers, farmers, DMZ sightseers, eagles, or vultures, the cranes may quit the CCZ during the day to take refuge in the DMZ. Toward dusk they return to the fields to feed and roost, preferably in shallow water, where the approach of any predator is easily heard. At this time of year, when the water may be frozen, the birds resort to the open ice on the reservoir. 

In a bare rice paddy lies a dead water deer, attended by huge cinereous vultures and carrion crows and a white-tailed sea eagle. As if attracted to the scene, though not sharing in the feast, a northern harrier courses the brown paddies and a rough-legged hawk sits hunched on a dead tree, mobbed by five magpies, which for magpie reasons—no doubt astute—ignore the eagle that is perched nearby. Both eagle and rough-leg are endangered species in this country, and Dr. Kim observes sadly that all raptors are now rare throughout South Korea, and presumably in the North as well. In effect, he says, the wildlife throughout the peninsula is all but gone.

In the center of the valley is a high and heavily fortified earth wall overlooking the demilitarized zone. The wall severs and extinguishes the former rail line that, like a spinal cord, connected the Koreas. At the foot of the wall, the old railroad station is still intact, but the last train, blasted by war, lies in rusted ruin. On the wall itself stands a large tower with a top-floor observatory fitted with tourist telescopes and a diorama depicting what lies in the forbidden territory off to the north. Beneath the tower are two high steel fences with rolled barbed wire on the top, then an open strip, close-cropped and mined, and finally the woods and undergrowth of the DMZ itself. Though second growth and of little apparent interest (except as a potential study area of a half-century of natural plant succession), the DMZ was the only undeveloped land I saw in South Korea. 

The water deer—a small, rufous long-haired species whose males lack antlers but are fitted out with tusks—is abundant in the DMZ, and a few roe deer and wild goats—gorals—are still found at higher elevations. The zone can also claim the last red foxes in this battered country. (There are even rumors of a few surviving Asian leopards, which were common throughout the peninsula until systematically poisoned after the war, but nobody cares to test the hair triggers of the soldiery by entering the DMZ in search of tracks.) And there are birds, which venture out into the CCZ—rustic, yellow-breasted, and Siberian meadow buntings, greenfinches and a northern shrike, turtledoves and the common buzzard, in addition to what I sometimes call requiem birds—magpies and crows—which prosper everywhere in the wake of man’s disruptions.

At the observatory snack bar, we warm chilled bones with kimchi (pickled cabbage) and hot noodle soup. Dr. Kim introduces us to Sunwoo Young-Joon, director of the Ecosystem Conservation Division of the Ministry of the Environment. Mr. Sunwoo, a tall, open young man, is sincere and hardworking in his job, Dr. Kim assures us, and indeed he takes extensive notes as Dr. Archibald explains why this unspoiled zone is so critical to the future of South Korea’s “bird of peace”—far more important than any of the proposed alternative uses, such as a new “Cholwon City,” or some sort of North-South university, or a nuclear-waste site for the country’s 10 or 12 reactors, or yet another Hyundai auto factory.

As Dr. Archibald points out to Mr. Sunwoo, the turumi here at Cholwon represent almost a quarter of all known red-crowned cranes on the Asian mainland. As for the gray cranes, which rest only two or three days at most Korean staging areas during migration, they depend on this valley for four to six weeks before traveling on to Japan. No other area in Korea, North or South, is so critical for crane conservation.

Because of pressure from Cholwon farmers, the boundary of the CCZ has crept steadily northward, narrowing the feeding territory of the cranes, and what Archibald and the Korean Association for Bird Protection are urging is some sort of crane sanctuary with an area closed to motor vehicles, where the birds can feed undisturbed. Ideally the feeding grounds could be viewed and enjoyed from an observatory and tourist center for the 11 tour buses a day that come to the view the DMZ; the army sentry posts might serve as blinds for wildlife observation. Most important is continuing the CCZ ban on construction of vinyl greenhouses, which eliminate the birds’ main source of food. This “dry-ground agriculture”—with its year-round utility and its fast-moving specialty crops such as green vegetables and cut flowers—is simply more profitable than the old-time rice paddies, and the ban is being contested by the owners, who naturally resent any conservation strictures that might devalue their land.

What Dr. Archibald has in mind, he tells Mr. Sunwoo, is an ecotourism in which local people must have a share right from the start—not a strict reserve or refuge but a sort of park that also allows for private use of the good farmland. Like all enlightened conservationists, Dr. Archibald knows that parks and sanctuaries work best when the local people’s interests and opinions are considered. Because Cholwon claims Korea’s finest rice, grown in unpolluted water and clear air, the rich soil of the valley floor is worth billions of dollars, and its local owners, forced to live outside the buffer zone, will never relinquish it without a fight, which could include a vengeful slaughter of the cranes. 

Doubtless Mr. Sunwoo is aware that by 1970, the red-crowned, white-naped, and hooded cranes had been granted official designation as Natural Monuments #202, 203, and 228, respectively. Since then Cholwon itself—125 acres of it, at least—has become Natural Monument #245, and the Han estuary #250. It is a first step only, since this status protects neither the birds nor the habitat from development. In any case, Mr. Sunwoo assured us before leaving that the Ministry of the Environment was seriously considering alternatives to industrial and municipal development. Dr. Kim said he believed that Mr. Sunwoo was sincere, and despite mistrust of bureaucrats and politicians, this was our impression, too, perhaps because we wanted badly to believe him.

Over the landscape in the winter evening comes an insensate blare of amplifiers and weird martial music—the propaganda hurled by both encampments at each other’s heads, in a horrid babel of hollow voices accompanied by a tinny din of soulless music. A church on the South Korean side has joined in this Orwellian barrage, erecting an empty House of God with a mighty cross that is visible from near and far, as if to demonstrate to those godless Communists across the border that the merciful Lord who permitted such slaughter in this place remains undaunted.

I drive back to Seoul with Suh Il-Sng, a journalist turned freelance photographer who, like most of not all of the KABP members in our party, understands very well the long-term significance of the DMZ, remarking of his own accord that no comparable “wilderness” may be found in South Korea. It is evening now, long after dark, yet heavy road traffic with its blare and fumes plagues us all the way into the city. Though Mr. Suh has surely grown inured to these conditions, he finally voices what he knows this visitor to his country must be thinking. “Too many people, too many cars,” he sighs. In Seoul, he tells me, there are now 11 million people, with 500 new mouths every day.

Next day we head north along the Han River on the Freedom Highway, another expression of the Korean yearning for reunification. Opened to traffic in 1992, the new highway is strongly fenced and heavily guarded by Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers against invasion or infiltration from the river and its estuary. In consequence, a wide area along the riverside is inaccessible to humankind, serving the same purpose as the DMZ. Between the river and the road lie bottomlands where the huge new Ilsan City was created to take care of Seoul’s overflowing population. The rest of this vast floodplain is covered by white greenhouses proliferating like pale fungi, thousands upon thousands, mile after square mile, with no room for a sparrow in between. 

Near the confluence of the Imjin River and the Han, the mountains of North Korea rise from the morning mist, and a flock of 12 to 15 white-naped cranes crosses to the river bottoms of the Imjin Delta. In recent years the resting area for these cranes in this great estuary has been much degraded due to high salinity caused by a barrage of construction up the river, with invasive reed grasses replacing the sedges that formerly supplied the migrant flocks with abounding tubers. The increase in this species at Cholwon since the 1970s seems mostly attributable to habitat deterioration and disturbance in the Imjin and also in the Panmunjom Valley, to the north. 

At Imjingak, where North Korean refuges living in the South come to send prayers and pay reverence to their lost homeland, our party must show special passes before crossing the Imjin River into the Civilian Control Zone. After so many miles of traffic and construction, this country of fields mixed with scrub woods is a great relief, though the poor woods are second growth and heavily mined. At one place where we stop along the way, the kind KABP men, unable to see the farm track I am using, yell in alarm when I step off the tarred road ahead, seeking to identify a bird.

Farther north, at a United Nations checkpoint manned in part by U.S. soldiers, is the only point along the border where outsiders may enter the DMZ itself. Here our party is taken in hand by a hard-faced ROK military policeman wearing prominent sidearms and a hand grenade. With an official blue pennant fluttering from the car window, we proceed north to Taesongdong, a token village within the DMZ, where after more paperwork we are permitted to climb to the ROK Army Observation tower overlooking Panmunjom Valley. In the tower, young soldiers in camouflage greens overturn clipboards to protect their top-secret contents from our prying eyes and warn us with rough gestures against taking pictures. Even our viewing of the empty valley is treated with frowns of professional suspicion, since they cannot know—and would never understand—that these foreign devils have not come to ferret out their defenses but to look for cranes. When we leave the observation tower a few minutes later, the soldiers jump up with warlike shouts and fierce salutes.

Taesongdong is known as Freedom Village; the blue- and orange-trimmed North Korean housing directly across the no-man’s-land, on the far side of the valley, is named Peace Village. Unlike Freedom Village, Peace Village appears devoid of human life, and even the mountains beyond it are denuded, stripped bald of trees, apparently to eliminate the last cranny where some counterrevolutionary or capitalist running dog might seek to hide. Peace Village claims the highest flagpole in the world—high as a radio tower, which it resembles—and it flies a gigantic North Korean flag, red, white, and blue. Here at Freedom Village, the pole is somewhat smaller, but the flag is bigger—the biggest in Korea, Dr. Kim assures us. 

Below Taesongdong is a sort of pagoda in a grove of pine and cedar, marking the place where uncounted thousands of young soldiers—much like these watching us, I can’t help thinking—fought and screamed and died. Beyond the pagoda are more walls and more fortified steel fences, and I am astonished by a water deer that crossed an embankment and vanishes into the scrawny trees around a bunker, like the last remnant of departed wildlife. 

The complex of fortifications descends to the valley floor, the only place where patrolled farming within the DMZ is now permitted. The oxcart that lumbers along under the eyes of so many armed men is incongruous indeed, as a crane would be were we to find one in such a setting, for the fallow wetlands of the DMZ are being obliterated here by draining and cultivation. Inevitably, the cranes are missing, and George Archibald shakes his head, ready to leave. From 1974 to 1979, before this war atmosphere resumed and the rearming escalated to the point of lunacy, he made four journeys to the DMZ to research the newly discovered flocks of wintering cranes, and he is disheartened by their absence from this valley where 20 years ago he recorded 10 families of Grus japonensis—about 40 birds altogether—accompanied by several hundred G. vipio

Our permit allows a visit to Panmunjom Village, where the official border neatly bisects the table on which the armistice was signed and where one may visit a North Korean museum erected to commemorate American atrocities. However, we decline this opportunity, electing to go birdwatching instead. With two armed ROK guards marching behind, we walk along the south edge of the DMZ, over dirt roads that might resemble country lanes were it not for that amplified blare of propaganda echoing across the landscape from both sides. At one point–because one of our army guards has retraced his steps a little ways to direct a car, leaving our official escort one man short—we are halted by a roving patrol led by a large, leashed dog. In this clear military emergency, the patrol of 20 men actually unlimber their automatic rifles and squat on the road shoulder in full combat alert until their missing comrade catches up with us.

Oblivious to all this martial nonsense, a water deer fawn scrambles over a grassy bank, and flocks of pretty parrotbills forage busily in the sedges, as does a great spotted woodpecker, a few raptors, and fair numbers of doves and pheasants. Later, a Daurian redstart is seen, as well as a flock of Naumann’s thrushes, blowing in fits and starts through the bare winter trees.

Searching in vain for the lost cranes, we make our way down an embankment path toward the Imjin River. In a corner of the snowy fields, the brave men of the KABP, bright checked caps flashing, discover mist nets set for songbirds by the local people. One net is twisted by the struggles of two buntings and a parrotbill that their captors have not bothered to retrieve, and our men break up the bamboo net poles with excited shouts. Across the field, they come upon a poisoned goose that apparently reached this ditch before it died. Dr. Kim says that cranes, too, die from poisoned grain set out for geese and pheasants; last year five poisoned white-naped cranes were found dead on these mudflats. No shooting is permitted in the CCZ, but man is never at a loss when it comes to killing. “What a species we are!” Dr. Archibald exclaims after this long morning—less in judgment than in awe of human ways. There is nothing to be done about the goose, but the next day, just north of Inchon, the KABP performs a citizen’s arrest on a man caught hunting ducks illegally. 

Across the Imjin, which is clogged with chunks of dirty ice, the terrain is torn up and raw, marred by the dead, chemical colors of earthmoving machines and plastic sheeting, flapping like shrouds in the winter wind. In this place, a mile upriver from the old Freedom Bridge at Imjingak, the South Koreans are building a new bridge for another new highway to the closed border, against the day of their reunion with the North. Despite these grim environs, the ice upriver from the bridge is a roosting place for thousands of bean geese and white-fronted geese, and stalking the paddies on the river bench above, on the very edges of the bridge approaches, is a flock of 26 white-naped cranes. Though as many as 2,000 of these cranes still pass through Korea on their way to southern Japan, about half of them now use Cholwon as their main staging area; only about one-eighth of the migrating birds will winter along the DMZ.

The wintering cranes of the Han-Imjin region are thought to come south from the Zhalong Reserve, in northeast China, whereas those at Cholwon may follow a more easterly flyway, from breeding grounds in the Amur drainage and Lake Khanka, on the Russian-Chinese border. Since the total number of red-crowneds in the wild is perhaps half that of hoodeds or white-napeds, it might be assumed that the loss of Korean wintering grounds would be the most serious for this species. But Dr. Archibald points out that winter habitats of the red-crowned crane along the China coast remain more less intact, whereas all the main wintering grounds of the white-naped crane—in southern Japan and south-central China as well as in Korea—are now threatened (in China, by the construction of the huge Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River). Thus the loss of their Korean refuge might be even more critical for this species.

Before leaving the CCZ, we locate a few more Grus vipio and four G. japonensis, all feeding in the vicinity of some new bunker construction where little chimneys for aeration of the Homo sapiens beneath stick up like weird red-metal mushrooms out of the ground. At Imjingak, a large flock of reddy shelducks and spot-billed ducks and mallards has gathered in dry rice fields just below the bridge, and farther down the estuary are thousands of waterfowl of many species. But since these wetlands are fenced off, the only people who can enjoy them are the numerous patrols of soldiers in green camouflage garb, faces daubed with artificial mud and metal helmets stuck with humble straw, all set to repel those landings along the Han that in all likelihood will never take place. 

Weather is sudden in Korea, and a blizzard sweeps in from the Yellow Sea over vast gray mudflats laid bare in a great rise and fall of outgoing tide. The turumi especially like to probe these saline mudflats for crustaceans, but any chance of locating the white cranes is swirled away in the thick snow. Today we have seen very few cranes in the Han-Imjin, even fewer than expected, and there seems small doubt that their numbers are diminishing. 

With the Naktong marshlands all but destroyed, and the Han-Imjin under such stress, it appears that the last refuge of the cranes may be at Cholwon, where for the moment their numbers appear stable—about 275 red-crowneds and 360 white-napeds. But even at Cholwon, the South Koreans, despite the good intentions of the Korean Association for Bird Protection, may lack the resolve to stem the rush toward ever more development. The week after we left South Korea, the nation’s seven automakers announced their ambition to spend a combined $5.31 billion on capital investment—up 32 percent in a single year—with more than $1.3 billion from Hyundai alone. (Between 1990 and 1994, carbon emissions rose 44 percent in South Korea, as opposed to 13 percent in China and 24 percent in India.)  

Yet it is heartening to learn that in a recent poll of 1,500 South Koreans by the government-funded Korea Environmental Technology Research Institute, an astonishing 85 percent of the respondents worried that pollution was getting worse each year, and 90 percent cited “habitat loss” as the greatest environmental problem after the pollution of air and water. Eighty-five percent of those polled also stated that the environment was more important than economic development.

Two days ago at Cholwon, toward dusk, we observed the largest crane flocks of our trip at a point just north of Yangji-ri, or Sapsulbong, an abrupt little mountain less than 700 feet high that stands by itself in the middle of the basin. Sapsulbong acquired its present name of Ice Cream Mountain during the Korean War, perhaps because of the cone shape that resulted from relentless battering by the artillery on both sides. Not far to the west, in the mountain cirque, rises Porkchop Hill, another notorious slaughter ground. According to Kim Sooil, the small, nondescript Sapsulbong changed hands 14 or 15 times in the last weeks of the war, before the new boundaries that would leave it in South Korea could be hammered out at that table in Panmunjom. After the war, peasants excavating the rubble around its base to make new rice fields unearthed a pit of skulls and bones several feet deep.  

Watching these great and ancient birds flying and calling through these mists in a damp cold where so many young soldiers crouched in fear and misery, watching them striding in calm elegance across these fields laced with so much human blood, one is beset by somber, confused feelings. As George Archibald remarks quietly, watching the birds drift over the silent land in the dimming sun, “I feel all the more blessed that I can see such beautiful creatures, knowing the horrors other men had to endure hear years ago.” And we agree how fitting and respectful it would be to those who had to die here if the cranes were honored and protected as harbingers of peace and morning calm. 

The wary cranes might be perceived as emblematic of true wilderness, of clean water and clean air and the expanses of clean earth required to sustain the cycles of their ancient seasons. To see such magnificent creatures in these sullen borderlands, skirting barbed-wire fences and embankments, highway construction and utility poles in a hard-hammered landscape fraught with unnatural noises and disturbance, is deeply saddening. One can only marvel at the endurance of wild things and their strong instinct toward survival, which offer hope that these beautiful creatures may persist long enough for mankind to appreciate what might be lost and make some room for them. 

 

 

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