|Bernhard Seliger at a model afforestation site in North Korea's Sangso-ri village in Taedong County, South Pyongan Province. Courtesy of Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea Office|
Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea Office chief warns of development pressure at border
By Ko Dong-hwan
German economist Bernhard Seliger, who turned to helping North Korea with ecological improvement and related capacity building, has been monitoring the inter-Korean border region closely. What he has recently witnessed from the region's southern side has been concerning ― signs of agro-industrial development that destroys natural preservation.
Testimony from the director of the Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea Office came from the south side of the civilian control zone (CCZ), a restricted area spanning the border region 10 kilometers within the military demarcation line (MDL) that divides the Korean Peninsula.
"People come to the region and they get very disappointed with what they see," Seliger told The Korea Times. "Roads, roads, roads, big concrete drain pipes for rice fields, new pension houses and educational facilities. It's not romantic. It's not real wilderness there, but man-made."
Having visited North Korean cities and rural communities many times to survey migratory birds and educate locals on protecting birds and forests, Seliger frequented the isolated state's border regions. Over the course of time, however, he witnessed that the South Korean CCZ was becoming considerably reduced in size and the presence of rural infrastructure starker.
"Theoretically you have a large return of infrastructure if you build first, second and third roads, all good for the economy," the economist by training said. "In the CCZ, there was a dirt track with only about a couple of cars a day. Now, it's changed to concrete. Completely unnecessary. Concrete pipes were also previously just open trenches drawing many wild animals. These changes are nice for farmers but devastating for biodiversity.
"So you have the importance of biodiversity and, at the same time, development pressure. Until now CCZ was kind of a buffer between the two Koreas because many things couldn't happen inside there. Now the zone is much decreased."
|Bernhard Seliger at frozen Taedong River in Pyongyang. He has been supporting and internationally promoting Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea Office's environmental recovery works in North Korea since 2002. Courtesy of Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea Office|
The impact on the CCZ was reflected on migratory birds like brown tiger shrikes and cranes. Seliger found that tiger shrikes, once widely distributed in South Korea, can now be found only in Gangwon Province's Goseong County at the border. Cranes are also hard to spot, except in the rice fields of the province's other border-crossing jurisdiction of Cheorwon County.
In a natural preservation sense, not only the demilitarized zone (DMZ) but also its adjacent areas are crucial, according to the German. Rice field wetlands at the Han River estuary in northwestern South Korea and Cheorwon are among a few good examples, providing feeding grounds for birds and breeding biodiversity.
"If rice fields are not working well, then DMZ has no more (ecological) functions," Seliger said. "The DMZ has only those functions together with areas that are close to it."
Seliger's mission is not limited to ecological expertise of the border region. In fact, preserving nature in the area is a prerequisite to his office's ultimate objective of bringing the two Koreas closer through depoliticized environmental discussions. And his activities open windows of opportunity for the two Koreas within international frameworks.
Cranes, for example, were a medium to enable North Korea in 2018 to join the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) following 18 states and 17 non-government organizations. Having prepared for it since 2015, Seliger called the decision "symbolic cooperation."
Other birds or animals also brought the two Koreas to the same table at international forums ― such as spoon-billed sandpipers, only 300 left in the world, which annually visit the border region in the Han River estuary as they migrate from Russia.
Relying on international meetings is inevitable for Koreas' reconciliation because a direct conversation with the North Korean authority of environment ― the Ministry of Land and Environmental Protection (MoLEP) ― was almost never fruitful.
"They know the ecological importance of the DMZ and other border regions, but they have no access because it's a military area," Seliger said. "Meaningful discussion of the region as a naturally protected area is very difficult."
|Cranes are seen at the civilian control zone in Yeoncheon County, Gangwon Province. Courtesy of Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea Office|
Studies on birds and forests have been neglected in the hereditary kingdom of Kim Il-sung and his descendants for decades since the Korean War separated the peninsula in 1953. The state isolated itself from outside, cutting off opportunities to learn.
But now the state has shifted its political paradigm to join hands with other countries ― at least in an environmental concern. The change came after uncontrolled harnessing of forests for food and energy had made the state vulnerable to natural disasters and famine ― about 2 million people died of starvation between 1994 and 1998, while 40 percent of North Korean woods disappeared between 1990 and 2015.
Hanns Seidel, a German political foundation founded in 1967 with affinity to the Christian Social Union party in Bavaria, opened its Korean office in Seoul in 1987 to aid the North. The aim is international integration and cooperation in the field of environment.
The office, under Seliger's charge, mainly works on afforestation and protection of wetlands and migratory birds.
To bring North Korea face to face with the global community, the foundation, apart from EAAFP, also led the state to becoming the 118th state member of the United Nations Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 2018.
In one of the preconditions to do so, Hanns Seidel supported the state in surveying and publishing an inventory of the 73 most important wetlands in the country. Busan-based birds conservation group Birds Korea, the World Wildlife Fund and the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society joined in this project.
As for the other precondition, the organization helped the country select two Ramsar sites as migratory bird reserves ― those in Mundok County of South Pyongan Province and the Rason Special Economic Zone.
In spring 2019, Seliger invited a Hong Kong delegation to Mundok reserve to raise awareness on the new safe habitat for endangered species. On Oct. 13 that year, to celebrate the World Migratory Bird Day the previous day, he supported the North Korean MoLEP coordinate the state's first Swan Goose Festival. With co-organizers of EAAFP Secretariat, WWF Hong Kong and the city's bird-watching society, about 160 attended the event.
|Part of Seliger's works in North Korea is rebuilding forests to fix deforestation, like this mountain in South Hamgyong Province that is almost stripped of trees. Courtesy of Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea Office|
Rebuilding forests in North Korea is Hanns Seidel's other major project.
To train North Koreans how to develop new forest nurseries and nurture them, Seliger brought experts from overseas, including his brother who is a forester in Germany. He also invited the vice-head of Germany's Thunen Institute for Forest Ecology to North Korea in 2019 to share expertise.
Afforestation projects in North Korea, funded by the European Union, began in 2014 and have accrued healthier forests, forming trusted partnerships with the state's MoLEP and Forest Management Research Institute. They built model forestation in Pyongyang, Rason and are now discussing another one in Wonsan, Gangwon Province.
"If you go to North Korea, you will easily realize that forests are looking really bad," Seliger said. "It's also really serious as they cannot cushion hard rains and floods."
This year, with three years' worth of funding from the European Union, Seliger plans to visit Brussels in February to secure a follow-up with a 100 hectare-sustainable forestry project.
"North Koreans bring labor and we bring material we couldn't locally buy," Seliger said. "Each 100 hectare afforestation costs about 50-60 million won ($42,000-$57,000), not very expensive. In three years, we have trained about 1,000 North Korean officials, with each training period lasting two weeks."
|North Koreans check a model afforestation site at a mountain in Sangso-ri village in Taedong County, South Pyongan Province, which was previously almost completely deforested. Seliger invites foresters and other experts to North Korea to train locals how to foster forests. Courtesy of Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea Office|
Travelling to North Korea, Seliger said, presented "hundreds of difficulties." For one, the state is constricted by international trade sanctions that limit what foreign visitors can bring to the country. More recently, outbreak of the coronavirus, has triggered the country to seal itself shut. However, there has always been hawkish state monitoring of any suspicious activity by foreigners.
Seliger's projects for February and March were all canceled due to the state's entry ban, including a survey trip for this year's swan festival at Manpo and Bonpo Lakes in Rason.
"Almost 1,000 swans come to the lakes every February and March," Seliger said. "It's not the first time. Same with Ebola, and all those political difficulties."
The sanctions even barred him from bringing cooking pots into the country because they were made of metal.
"If we are large enough we can get exemption of sanctions, but our projects are mostly small-scale so we didn't try that," he said. "If we have new EU-funded projects the exemptions could come."
And North Korea is not always cooperative when foreigners meddle in inter-Korean matters. It was evident in December 2019 when African swine flu swept through pig farms in the border region.
"The South Korean government wanted a bilateral seminar but the North rejected this," Seliger said. "So we arranged a seminar in China and brought the two Koreas together."
|A German forester teaches North Korean state officials about forestry. Courtesy of Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea Office|
Seliger said North Korea shared a likeness with East Germany before the 1990 unification in several ways ―catastrophic environmental problems and promising ecological potential.
"East Germany had serious problems with water pollution, nuclear, forest and chemical catastrophes from mining," Seliger said. Yet, it had much fewer people than its western counterpart and more natural species, including storks, which are rare in the west.
East Germany, before the new unified state, designated many new protected areas. Now, the region has a much higher percentage of protected areas than the western region, according to Seliger. Saxony, Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt in eastern Germany are greenbelt-protected states. Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt are also National Nature Monuments, a new protected area category added to the country's Federal Nature Conservation Act in 2010.
"East Germans were disappointed with their own state, largely because of water, chemical and other ecological problems," Seliger said. "These protected areas now have a very good network of biosphere reserves, nature protection area and national parks."