Can Green Diplomacy Take Root in the DMZ?

A uniformed North Korean soldier stands before the crossing point at the DMZ, a site marked by a white line and low one story buildings

On August 18, 1976, an overgrown poplar tree brought the Korean peninsula back to the brink of war. Concerned that the towering poplar was blocking lines of sight across the DMZ, United Nations Command (UNC) authorities dispatched a work party from the south under military escort to trim the tree. Within minutes, however, the party was confronted by a North Korean security detail and ordered to immediately cease operations. A brawl ensued, resulting in the death of two American soldiers. In response, the UNC launched what is surely the first landscaping project carried out at DEFCON-3. They called it Operation Paul Bunyan. Backed by scores of armored vehicles and more than twenty helicopters, a work crew equipped with chainsaws felled the poplar tree, leaving the North with little choice but to observe from afar.

The Korean landscape has insinuated itself into myriad facets of war and peace on the peninsula

If the so-called Axe Murder Incident, as the events preceding Operation Paul Bunyan came to be known, reminds us of the hostilities that have periodically tested the Korean Armistice Agreement, it also illustrates how the forces of nature have shaped inter-Korean relations. More than simply forming a passive backdrop, the Korean landscape insinuates itself into myriad facets of war and peace on the peninsula. And nowhere more so than in the DMZ: a heavily militarized “no-man’s land” that has transformed over decades into one of the world’s unlikeliest wilderness reserves. Offering roughly four hundred square miles of habitat to a diverse array of flora and fauna, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ) teems with life. Amidst landmines and concertina wire, dozens of rare or endangered species find sanctuary in this military standoff. Some activists and local government officials now call this green belt the PLZ: the “Peace and Life Zone.”

A black and white image showing a tree with ladders resting against it in the foreground with soldiers in conflict in the background

Operation Paul Bunyan, a project to trim an overgrown tree in the DMZ, was perhaps the first landscaping operation carried out at DEFCON-3. It led to the death of two American soldiers and took the peninsula to the brink of war. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in came together in the DMZ for their historic summit in April, Korean nature was everywhere on display. As with so many aspects of their diplomatic tour-de-force, these natural trappings were carefully orchestrated. Early in their meeting, the two men took time to admire a painting of Mt. Kumgang, whose rocky spires have arrested the attention of generations of Koreans. In a moment of candor, President Moon expressed his interest in hiking up Mt. Paekdu, the “white-headed mountain” that has for decades enjoyed pride of place in North Korean propaganda. To scan the dinner menu from that evening is also to be reminded of the ecological diversity of the peninsula: beef from Ch’ungch’ŏng Province, mushrooms from the Baekdu Mountains, octopus caught off the coast of Namhae. That the forces of the natural world bind the two Koreas was a leitmotif of the day’s events.

No doubt the clearest tribute to the tangled roots of the two Koreas came later in the afternoon when Kim and Moon slipped on work gloves and picked up shovels to take part in a ceremonial tree planting. Whereas four decades ago the two Koreas came to blows over a poplar, this time they came together over a pine. This fact was not lost on President Moon, who, as a young conscript in the South Korean military, took part in Operation Paul Bunyan.

Kim and Moon pose before a portrait of Mt. Kumgang

Kim and Moon pose before a painting of Mt. Kumgang. Image via the Republic of Korea.

If the warm rapport between the two leaders came as a shock to many observers, their mutual admiration for the Korean pine was hardly surprising. Long a fixture of Korean poetry, painting, and architecture, the pine tree has for centuries occupied a prominent place in Koreans’ environmental consciousness. Few physical features of the Korean peninsula are more tightly woven into nationalist discourse than the pine tree itself—an arboreal icon that resonates strongly on both sides of the DMZ.

But the particular pine transplanted into the DMZ is noteworthy for another reason: it was planted in 1953. With roots dating back to the signing of the Armistice Agreement, the tree stands as a living testament to how Korea’s forests transcend the ebbs and flows of hostility. In another carefully coordinated gesture, Kim and Moon proceeded to mix soils taken from the slopes of Mt. Paekdu and Mt. Halla (the northern and southern alpine crests of Korea) with water drawn from the banks of the Taedong and Han Rivers (that cut through the capitals of Pyongyang and Seoul). “Peace and Prosperity are planted,” reads a stone plaque placed next to the pine tree.

Kim and Moon water a newly planted Korean White Pine tree during the summit

Kim and Moon water a newly planted white pine during the April summit. Image via the Republic of Korea.

But will it grow? One can only speculate, given the gravity of the policy challenges ahead. This is not the first time the two Koreas have turned to their forests to nurture goodwill. Following his visit to North Korea in 2007, South Korean President No Muhyŏn planted a tree in Pyongyang to signal much the same message. Since the late 1990s, moreover, forestry institutions on both sides of the DMZ have undertaken a series of cooperative forestry projects. Led by NGOs, these pilot programs concentrated principally on reforestation and pest control—acute environmental problems in many upland areas in North Korea.

Given the interest in “exchange” set forth in the Panmunjom Declaration, it seems likely that such cooperative agro-forestry projects will ramp-up as the talks move forward. Just recently, South Korea’s Forest Service announced the creation of a special task force to coordinate joint reforestation projects in North Korea. Reforestation is a natural platform for engagement for two simple reasons. First, it is a collaborative undertaking that is not subject to United Nations sanctions, allowing both sides to skirt regulatory red tape. Second, it is sorely needed in many mountainous regions of North Korea, where erosion, flooding, and fuel shortages pose perennial threats.

Many of the peninsula’s ecological challenges transcend borders.

Indeed, whatever their disagreements on denuclearization and unification, both Koreas recognize the value in environmental coordination and natural disaster management. Many of the peninsula’s ecological challenges, after all, transcend borders. As a heavily forested landscape, both Koreas have grown acutely sensitive to deforestation and its broader ecological ramifications—erosion, siltation, flooding, and famine. That South Korea first proposed joint forestry projects with North Korea in the wake of the catastrophic “Arduous March” floods and famine—a disaster exacerbated in part by severe deforestation—speaks to the clear perception that what happens in one part of the peninsula is linked to the other. The environmental challenges posed by climate change and sea level rise likewise offer a natural path for dialogue and cooperation, as coastal regions and fisheries across the peninsula share these risks.

Whether these initiatives sow the seeds for sustained engagement or remain only symbolic gestures, we can fully expect that talk of Koreans’ environmental and territorial heritage will continue. Further steps towards de-escalation and reconciliation may very well lead directly through Korea’s mountains and forests—perhaps even up the slopes of Mt. Paekdu—where Koreans find a shared sense of history and identity.

Kim and Moon walk through the crossing point between two low blue-painted buildings.

Kim and Moon at the DMZ crossing point. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image: a soldier standing at the DMZ crossing point. Image via Wikimedia commons.

David Fedman teaches Japanese, Korean, and environmental history at the University of California, Irvine. He is currently completing a book-length study of forestry in Korea under Japanese rule, The Saw and the Seed: Forestry and the Politics of Conservation in Colonial Korea (under contract with the University of Washington Press). His most recent publication examines Korea’s forest history through the lens of the ondol: the heated floor system conventional to Korean architecture. Website. Contact.

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