The greening of Korea
Everyone agrees something is going wrong, physically and visibly, with the world we live in.
Every spring, the Korean Peninsula endures yellow dust blowing in from northern China and Mongolia. This year the rainy season lasted through August. Now that we’re into early autumn, we’ve come to realize we didn’t have a proper summer. What happened to it, people wonder. Oh, and the Han River is rising to flood levels with a frequency that seems to defy the best efforts of man and machine to keep it under control all year round.
All these phenomena fall under the rubric of ``environment,” one of those turn-off words that has people changing the subject, surfing for another channel, turning to the next article in the paper. Please, let someone else worry about it. As long as I don’t toss trash out the car window, paste chewing gum onto the underside of a restaurant chair or spit in public, what else can I do?
The topic only becomes really interesting when disaster strikes; a huge oil spill, a broken dam, flooding, a forest fire, a tsunami a country or a continent away. We’ve all read those stories. Then again, we don’t worry a whole lot personally about them unless, God forbid, they happen where we are and suddenly we have to do something other than feel sorry for people we don’t know.
That’s probably why conferences that I’ve been attending in Seoul seem so abstract ― maybe why I don’t see a lot of other journalists taking great interest in them. Yet the words we hear and read in handouts are alarming. ``The Asia-Pacific region is expected to be one of the global region’s most severely affected by climate change,” says the Asian Development Bank. ``In 2010 more than 30 million people in the region were displaced by environmental disasters, including floods and storms.”
Over the decades since the Korean War, Koreans can be thankful for reforestation of vast stretches of land laid bare by combat and by people scrounging for wood for fuel and shelter during that terrible period. Veterans tell me they remember when the hills and mountains around Seoul were colored brown.
Now they’re green despite the inroads of industrialization and the spread of apartment blocks for a population hovering at 50 million. Contrast that with what you see on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone ― shades of brown and grey over a country devastated by a vicious cycle of deforestation and soil erosion.
North Korean propagandists sometimes say the land was laid bare by indiscriminate napalming by American warplanes, but the spectacle of bare earth in the North extends far beyond the scenes of the bloody battles above and below the 38th parallel. One has only to see the vegetation that covers most of the DMZ to realize how beautifully the Earth can recover if left untouched for decades. Look at Bloody Ridge where blood colored the ground north of Cheorwon ― it’s now a sea of green.
The South, though, faces severe environmental issues even while officials and experts rehearse what they’ll say at next week’s ``Gwangju Summit of the Urban Environmental Accords” and think about the World Conservation Congress nearly a year hence in Jeju. The idea of the Gwangju summit is for cities around the world to ``voluntarily obey environmental accords” for ``reducing energy consumption and garbage and evaluate the progress ….”
On the way there, you can’t help but notice the amazing proliferation of match-like blocks of apartments, the glistening new railroads crisscrossed by sweeping expressways, all serviced by new hotels and shopping centers. The rise of modern Korea, that is, South Korea, may have been miraculous, but it’s come with a price quite aside from the psychological tensions of a competitive society. That’s the cost of stripping pieces of land of whatever it was that gave them a beauty and charm that you might not have appreciated, or even noticed, until it was gone.
Remember the nun who blocked the construction of a tunnel, saying frogs indigenous to the mountain would never survive? Think of how many species have perished or been endangered by the rush to transform everything from valley floors to rivers to seacoasts into transportation routes and sites for new apartments and factories.
More than most countries, South Korea has been aware of the dangers and responded, though not always as effectively and enthusiastically as flossy conference brochures suggest. Anyone who’s traveled much around the South is aware of the existence of beautiful national parks, of carefully watched wetlands, of sandy beaches zealously protected from pollution despite the omnipresent danger of oil spills.
Still, as someone observed at one of these conferences, whenever they talk about a new park, the instinct seems to be to start pouring concrete. And it remains a mystery why nowhere in the capital of Seoul can ordinary people play a soccer or softball game for nothing in parkland is open to all as in New York’s Central Park or on the mall in Washington or in Hyde Park in London.
Columnist Donald Kirk is the author of ``Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.” His website is www.donaldkirk.com, and he’s reachable at email@example.com.