The quiet of the late-winter morning is interrupted by a staccato of gunshots.
"Military drills," shrugs Kim Seung-ho, 58, the director of the DMZ Ecology Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that does research on the wildlife in the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which is the border area between North and South Korea. A thick blanket of fog seeps over the forested hills on this late-winter morning as Kim stands, searching the horizon for birds, on the bank of the Imjin River just north of Paju, South Korea.
This morning, Kim and the institute's intern Pyo Gina, 24, are on their weekly trip to count birds just outside the DMZ, a 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide strip of land that has been virtually untouched by humans for more than six decades. This strip of land became an unintentional wildlife sanctuary when the two Koreas pulled back from the area after an armistice was signed in their 1950-53 war.
The DMZ is fortified with tall, barbed-wire fences, riddled with land mines and heavily guarded by the respective countries' militaries, keeping all human disturbances to a minimum. After people left the area, plants and wildlife were able to grow unrestrained. But with increasing goodwill between North and South Korea, environmentalists like Kim fear that the protected nature of the area is changing and may lead to detrimental effects on the wildlife.
"I can't help but worry that this area will face a serious threat. If we had preserved the region because we had agreed it's environmentally valuable, then it can be kept intact regardless of political circumstances. But this region was preserved because of the presence of military forces," says Kim. "Once the military tension disappears, it may naturally follow that people feel a strong urge to transform the area."
Even with tentative overtures toward peace, the two Koreas appear to be far from a place where the DMZ would disappear completely. Talks of a peace agreement have come up in the past, like a peace declaration made in 2000, but progress has been slow. Despite positive measures at a summit between North and South Korean leaders last fall, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's failed summit in Hanoi in February was a setback for all.
"A sea eagle!" gasps Pyo. The white-tailed eagle coasts on spread wings before quickly ducking around a bend in the Imjin and is lost to sight.
According to South Korea's Ministry of Environment, more than 5,000 species of plants and animals have been identified in the area, including more than 100 that are protected. Vulnerable, near-threatened and endangered animals in the DMZ include the Siberian musk deer, white-naped crane, red-crowned crane, Asiatic black bear, cinereous vulture and long-tailed goral — a species of wild goat.
Kim and Pyo count birds in the Civilian Control Zone, an area up to about 6 miles wide that runs along the southern side of the DMZ. Because of the restricted nature of the DMZ itself, the institute can only do research on the periphery. Although public access to the civilian zone is also restricted and the perimeter is lined by barbed wire and military guard posts, Kim has clearance to enter for research purposes.
The CCZ is mainly used for agriculture — farmers are allowed in to work their fields and the acres of rice paddies grown inside the perimeter are a quiet feeding ground in the winter for many migratory birds.
"Preserving the DMZ area should also mean preserving the Civilian Control Zone," says Kim, standing on a narrow path between rice paddies. "If we only preserve the DMZ proper, the variety of birds that come here will be curtailed. Small forest birds can both find enough food and inside the DMZ, but bigger birds come out here for food and go back in the DMZ just to sleep."
The endangered red-crowned crane, one of the rarest cranes in the world, winters in the area, relying on the spent grains left in the fields of the CCZ for food and sleeping in the quiet of the DMZ. There are only about 3,000 of this type of crane left in the world, according the International Crane Foundation. The civilian zone plays an important role in the preservation of the DMZ wildlife, acting as a buffer to minimize traffic to the edges of the DMZ itself.
In a sign of thawing tensions, the two Koreas began a joint project in October to remove land mines from the DMZ. Development projects are in the works, as well as roads and railroads and, eventually, possible development in the civilian zone.
"Demining inevitably destroys the nature," says Jung Suyoung, 37, a taxonomy expert and researcher at the National DMZ Botanical Garden, as he looks out from the grounds toward the edge of the zone, less than 5 miles away. He fears the detrimental effects of digging up land mines and the displacement of plants that is inevitable in the process.
"Some, including myself, argue that we should leave the DMZ as it is and try not to utilize the land," he says.
The botanical garden, opened in 2016, is filled with plants indigenous to the DMZ. It spills down a landscaped hillside in a valley encircled by mountains.
Inside a greenhouse, a group of researchers fill hundreds of wide, flat trays with soil and carefully sow long, black seeds from the hosta plant, a leafy native species that won't grow tall enough to disrupt the military's view of the zone — a limitation the researchers must work around when planning their operations. The seeds will eventually grow into low-lying, bushy plants that the researchers plan to return to the edges of the DMZ to repopulate areas affected by landslides and invasive plant growth.
Efforts to preserve the DMZ and surrounding areas are underway. The Ministry of the Environment in South Korea says it will announce measures this year to protect the environment before more development in the area. Talks will be held with the defense ministry and other key players before finalizing conservation guidelines.
The South Korean government is also pushing for the entire DMZ to be named a biosphere reserve through UNESCO, as a joint effort with North Korea. This allocation would require a wide buffer zone that limits development in areas alongside the DMZ. A previous application by the South Korean government in 2012 failed, in part because of a lack of rules limiting development by landowners in the surrounding areas.
Kim and Pyo, along with a handful of institute volunteers, continue their research every week. The institute plans to use data they collect to advise the government on where it might be best to build roads and buildings and where people could come and go with the least amount of disruption to the animals.
"It's a sad reality that we have preserved the area because we can get killed if we go inside — not because of an ethical sense of duty to preserve the nature," Kim says after returning from the bird count, having tallied 32 different species of birds in just a few hours.
"Love of the nature is indeed my motivation, but at the same time, I do think the nature can provide answers to the problems humankind suffers from," he says. "We have to protect it — force it, if necessary — because it's an important asset for the future."