The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics (February 9–25) and Paralympics (March 9–18) promise a brief respite in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. During inter-governmental talks in January 2018, North and South Korea decided that their teams would march in the Opening Ceremony under a common flag and compete as a united team in women’s ice hockey. South Korean President Moon Jae-in hopes that these gestures will reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and open the door to negotiations with North Korea. The Olympics may provide a brief semblance of peace, but no sports event will dampen North Korean nuclear ambitions or missile development goals. The risk of war is greater now than it has been in decades.
No matter what Kim does with his missiles, the skies over the Korean Peninsula are guaranteed to be filled shortly after the Olympic closing ceremonies with the annual migration of birds along the East Asian/Australasian Flyway. This north–south flyway of migrating birds extends from Siberia and Alaska in the north to Australia and New Zealand in the south. According to Birdlife International, over 50 million migratory waterbirds use this flyway every year. The waters around and on the Korean Peninsula are irreplaceable resting spots and breeding sites for many of these species.
These birds have become a part of my life this year, as I explore human–bird relations while doing anthropological field research in Japan, funded by the National Museum of Ethnology (Japan) and SSHRC, as part of a research project entitled “Austronesian Worlds: Human–Animal Entanglements in the Pacific Anthropocene.” Just this week, I visited the Izumi Crane Observation Centre. Sleeping in a rustic lodge just next to the centre, I fell asleep to the sounds of cranes chattering to each other until late at night. In the morning, they arrived in large numbers to feed in the fallow paddy fields outside my window. Beginning on February 1, their Japanese hosts provide them with not only grain, but with fatty chunks of fish to prepare them for their imminent journey to Korea and beyond to Siberia and northern China.
This grand wildlife spectacle is the result of difficult conservation work. At the Izumi City Crane Museum, I learned that there were only 263 cranes in the area in 1952 when the government designated them as a protected species and this area as a national monument. By 1992, that number had increased to 10,372. A sign in the observation centre indicates that in January 2018, there were 11,039 Hooded cranes (Grus monacha), 2,527 White-naped cranes (Grus vipio), and even seven “Canadian cranes” (the Japanese term for Sandhill cranes). The Hooded crane and White-naped crane are both listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). All of the White-naped cranes from Izumi stop in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
Another charismatic bird is the Black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor). True to their name, these spoonbills are large wading birds with flat black spatulate bills that they use to seek prey by sweeping them from side-to-side in the water. The best place to observe these birds is in the Taijiang National Park in Southwestern Taiwan during their winter, non-breeding period. Although they spread across the area’s fish farms, paddy fields, and wetlands in search of food, they congregate in large numbers within a kilometre of an observation centre established in the park. The Black-faced spoonbill, listed as endangered by the IUCN, is also a conservation success story. In 1990, there were only 294 in the world, of which 150 wintered in Taiwan. By 2017, their population had increased to 3,941 globally and 2,601 in Taiwan. In the spring, they fly north to breed on islets off the west coast of North and South Korea (some in the DMZ), as well as off Liaoning Province in China.
The stand-off between North and South Korea has inadvertently contributed to the resurgence of birds and other wildlife. The DMZ, a 2.4 mile strip running 155 miles across the peninsula, is a diverse landscape of forests, mountains, rivers, wetlands, and islands undisturbed by the massive infrastructure development that disturbs bird migration and habitat elsewhere in East Asia. South Korea also maintains a contiguous Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) of 3 to 12 miles wide south of the DMZ. Space for wildlife in the CCZ is now slowly being threatened by infrastructure development.
The DMZ is visited by Black-faced spoonbills during the breeding season, but is even more important to cranes. In 2007, waterbird specialist Hall Healy estimated that 25 percent of the world’s 2,500 Red-crowned Cranes and 50 percent of the 5,000 White-napped Cranes spend their winters in the DMZ. The numbers of all these species have increased dramatically since then due to conservation efforts, but the concentration of birds in certain areas and migration corridors makes them vulnerable. Kim Ke Chung and Lee Seung-ho began the DMZ Forum in 1997 to promote peace and wildlife conservation in the DMZ.
During the Korean War, migratory birds were displaced from their annual spots on the Korean Peninsula. During WWII, when Izumi was used as a departure point for kamikaze flights and became an Allied military target, the number of cranes there decreased by half. This time around, it won’t be as easy for the birds to simply find alternative areas to breed, rest, or feed. Much of the available migratory bird habitat has already been destroyed as swamps are drained and even seashores reclaimed for infrastructure in China and South Korea. Destruction of the DMZ or nearby islands could trigger a severe decline in the population of some species, perhaps even extinction.
Migratory birds remind us that all our lives and homelands are linked. Military strategists are surely aware of the human costs of extended military conflict, but perhaps not so mindful of the heavy toll it exacts on wildlife. After the near destruction of so many bird species in the 20th century, how will they survive the 21st? Who will speak out on their behalf?