Returning Cranes to North Korea: Eleana Kim on the Grus japonensis

By | September 01, 2012 | No Comments

Cranes in Anbyeon | Photo via Hall Healy, Chairman of the International Crane Foundation

Eleana Kim is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Rochester, currently at work on a book project tentatively entitled “Making Peace with Nature: The Greening of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.” This project is related to what Dr. Kim calls the “ecological exceptionalism” of the DMZ and the politics of sustainable development on the Korean peninsula. In the following essay, Eleana Kim describes the politicized journey of survival of one of the largest bird species on the planet, and talks with Bernhard Seliger, representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation in South Korea. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Returning Cranes to North Korea 

by Eleana Kim

The effects of the North Korean famine in the mid-1990s are often described in ecological terms: the famine stimulated rampant deforestation and the accompanying soil erosion, flooding, and landslides, all of which has contributed to a further series of environmental crises and food shortages. Yet another ecological effect of the famine, one less often remarked upon, is the disappearance of wildlife and biodiversity, in part due to hunting, but also due to rapid environmental degradation across the country.

One of the nonhuman casualties of the famine was the Red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis; 두루미in South Korean, 흰두루미in North Korean,丹顶鹤in Hanja), an endangered migratory bird species with a global population of less than 2,800 that is known throughout East Asia for its distinctive beauty, majestic appearance, and cultural associations with ancient landscape paintings in which they appear as a symbols of longevity.[i]

According to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a U.S.-based conservation organization, Red-crowned cranes used the Anbyon plain in (North) Kangwon Province, North Korea, as a wintering destination since “before recorded history until the late 1990s.”[ii] The late-1990s decline and then total disappearance of the 240 birds that had regularly migrated from Russia to Anbyon in late October until March or April could be directly attributed to the famine conditions in North Korea at the time. As starving people foraged and stripped the landscape bare to survive, no food sources remained for the cranes, which typically feed on small invertebrates in wetlands and leftover grains on fallow rice paddies. In the absence of food in Anbyon, the cranes moved on to the more prosperous south, to areas of the DMZ and adjacent Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) near Cheolwon county, where mechanical harvesting and artificial feeding programs provided plentiful amounts of excess grain for the birds to consume.[iii]

The famine has ended, but food shortages continue to plague North Korea, especially as both South Korea and the U.S. adopted hard line strategies in 2008 and 2009, tying food aid to demands on Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program. Given this precarious situation, it may seem surprising that the International Crane Foundation has been collaborating with the DPRK State Academy of Sciences (SAOS), the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF, based in Germany), and BirdLife International on an initiative to bring the cranes back to Anbyon.

The reasons for the initiative are not simply symbolic. As Bernhard Seliger, representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation in South Korea told me, even as the North Korean state has active environmental policies and “a desire to maintain a certain national culture” in which the cranes play a part, he sees the relationship of North Koreans to the environment as “more rational and material oriented. In their daily difficulty, for the farmers especially, there is no romanticism.” Rather than a North Korean initiative, the project emerged out of ICF’s anticipation of ecological insecurity on the southern side of the border, where overdevelopment instead of underdevelopment presents the most urgent risks to crane habitats.[iv]

In part a response to the famine and economic instability in North Korea, Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy in 1998 inaugurated a decade of unprecedented political and economic cooperation with the North. From the perspective of crane watchers and ornithologists, however, these developments were harbingers of a bleak future for the genus Grus.

As the DMZ became a site for the first North-South joint ventures, with the Kaesong Industrial Complex on the western side and the Diamond Mountain resort on the east, infrastructure development and resultant human interference threatened to shrink or destroy crucial wildlife habitats. The DMZ, once an impenetrable no-man’s land that had become an accidental haven for rare and endangered species, was opening up, and Cheolwon, a former transportation hub during the Japanese occupation, was being discussed as the site of a future “Reunification City.”[v]

In anticipation of how changes in the name of reunification or economic development in the DMZ and the adjacent Civilian Control Zone/CCZ would affect the cranes’ winter habitats, the ICF began to work out a plan to attract cranes back to the Anbyon Plain in North Korea. Situated at the Pisan Collective Farm in Anbyon County, the project began in 2008, with an ambitious goal to restore biodiversity of the local ecology and improve the livelihoods of the rural farmers in order to then create sustainable conditions for the cranes’ return. A crucial part of this redesign of Anbyon’s ecology is ensuring a steady supply of food for both the human and nonhuman populations.

Coincident with the crane preservation collaboration was a radical shift in inter-Korean relations under President Lee Myung-bak, who discontinued the Sunshine Policy and drastically reduced humanitarian aid, which included suspending an annual donation of 300,000 tons of fertilizer that the North had come to rely upon. With fuel shortages and insufficient sources of domestically produced fertilizer, North Korea began to rethink its decades long dependence on petroleum-based fertilizers, and organic farming became an active part of the state’s agenda.[vi]

Thus, the Hanns Seidel Foundation, which since 2007 had been training North Korean farmers and scientists in sustainable agriculture, became a key partner in the Anbyon venture. The Hanns Siedel Foundation began educating farmers in organic techniques with the goal of increasing production through sustainable methods at Pisan Collective Farm. Meanwhile, in conjunction with a prominent North Korean ornithologist, ICF implemented strategies they had used in other parts of the world to encourage the cranes to winter in Anbyon by intercepting them on their way south.

Providing a sustainable environment for the cranes includes flooding rice paddies, distributing grain, raising snails as feed, and distributing thousands of grasshoppers captured by local children. Yet luring them down from the skies requires additional measures. Painted decoys were planted in the field, and crane calls were broadcast on loudspeakers. Two captive cranes were borrowed from the Chinese State Forestry Administration, and by the end of last year, several White-naped cranes had landed and stayed for a few days, and fifteen Red-crowned cranes stayed for one month.

The hope is that the cranes will return next wintering season, and that more will land and stay for longer periods of time.  In addition, as climate change continues to warm the peninsula, ornithologists like George Archibald, founder of ICF, suspect that the birds will start to winter farther north, making Anbyon an ideal location.

The Pisan Collective Farm is now a model farm in North Korea, and it has achieved more than 90 percent of the yield formerly produced with chemical fertilizers. Moreover, as it has garnered international recognition and participation, the organic farming/crane preservation project has made having bird life “high profile,” according to Seliger, who explained that the 63-hectare Anbyon Crane Protection Area has been “designated by the cabinet so it’s a relatively high level on which [the Protection Area] has been decided.”

The farm has thus received not only political legitimacy as a model farm, but also new funds for building construction. For Seliger, one goal is to “show [North Koreans] that helping the cranes is not a further burden on the people, but, rather, can raise their living standard and raise a lot of sympathy…. These birds are interesting for the international community, and for South Korea. It’s something that at the moment is difficult to convey to the North, but it has been … explained to them that, with certain environmental projects, they could combine them with the inflow of certain aid.” That there is excitement on the North Korean side is clear from a promotional video produced by the Biodiversity Center of SAOS that montages together images of the returning cranes, flying and feeding to a cheerful soundtrack.

Ecologists consider birds valuable “bio-indicators” because shifts in their population numbers or habits can be signs of changing ecological conditions and their decline can often mean that other species are also being affected.

Although the numbers of documented cranes have increased in Cheolwon due to feeding programs and improved monitoring, this increase in numbers is also related to the radical decline of wintering flocks in other parts of the border area, notably in the western areas of Paju, Incheon, and Ilsan where rampant development of “new cities” has encroached upon areas that used to be visited by hundreds of cranes. With 90 percent of cranes in South Korea wintering in Cheolwon, the most passionate ecologists and activists in South Korea are urgently trying to educate the public about the dangers to the few remaining crane habitats, which are being destroyed and altered just as quickly as the DMZ is being touted as the next great ecotourism destination.

Capitalizing on the DMZ’s unique ecology, the South Korean state’s makeover of the border area from a jagged scar of national division and war to a green belt of “Peace and Life” is also a part of the broader rebranding of the nation as an exemplar of “Green Growth” and ecofriendliness in East Asia.[vii] The process is nearly complete, at least on the South Korean side. With bike paths and facilities for ecotours constructed or in preparation, the DMZ as eco-destination is being touted as the newest attraction for both domestic and foreign markets. Whether or not ecotourism will serve to expand ecological consciousness among the South Korean public and install truly sustainable solutions that promote conservation, it is clear that the economic benefits of tourism are seen, in the current neoliberal climate, as the key to selling and saving nature.

As with prior attempts to convert the DMZ into an internationally-recognized “peace park” however, South Korea’s recent proposal for the southern half of the DMZ to be designated a UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) reserve recently faltered, in part because North Korea’s consent had not been secured.[viii] As Seliger suggested to me, despite the association of cranes with peace and unification in South Korea—as migratory birds, they literally connect the two Koreas—in the north, these associations do not exist “because the border itself is not a topic in terms of peace.”

For Hanns Siedel Foundation and ICF, focusing on rebuilding a balanced ecology to feed people and cranes in North Korea is not a political project, but a practical one. Even as some people might want to view it as a “21st-century version of ping-pong diplomacy,” as Hall Healy, chairman of ICF explained, that view does not gain traction in the North, and may be counterproductive to the more immediate goals of crafting sustainable habitats. For the North, returning cranes to Anbyon may be less about leveraging nature in the name of future peace than it is about restoring interspecial relations to ensure mutual survival in the present.

The author gratefully acknowledges the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities for an an ACLS/SSRC/NEH International and Area Studies Fellowship (2011-2012) that funded portions of this research. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[i] Cranes are one of the ten traditional symbols of longevity in Taoist philosophy (십장생).

[ii] Archibald, George. “Crane Habitat Restoration and Sustainable Agriculture Project, Pisan Farm Cooperative, Anbyon Plain, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Progress Report-December 2011,” International Crane Foundation, 2011, p. 3.

[iii] A non-migratory resident population in Hokkaido, Japan, maintains about 1,000 individuals, and the remainder travel 600 miles on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway in their annual migrations. At an average of 5 feet tall (150 cm), Red-crowned cranes are also among the heaviest of all bird species and nearly human scale. They perform expressive dances, using their massive 8-foot long wingspan, mate for life, and typically have two children. They are omnivorous, and feed on small marine animals in marshes and wetlands, and on insects and vegetation on cultivated land. Today, most of their wintering grounds in South Korea are fallow agricultural fields, especially rice paddies, where they glean excess grains leftover from the autumn harvest. For more information on cranes and their habitats, see BirdLife International Species factsheet: Grus japonensis, 2012  and the ICF species field guide on the Red-crowned Crane.

[iv] Threats to the Red-crowned crane breeding and wintering habitats are becoming more severe due to urbanization, wetlands reclamation, agricultural intensification, and changing ecological conditions related to global warming. Crane fatalities in the Cheolwon area have been linked to poisoning from pesticides and liquid fertilizers as well as collisions with electricity lines.  See Lee Ki-sup, 두루미: 천년학을꿈꾸다 (Seoul: Field Guide, 2010) and Seung-hwa Yoo, Ki-sup Lee, and Chong-hwa Park, “Accident Cases and Causes of Electric Line Collision of Cranes at Cheorwon, Korea,” Korean Journal of Ornithology 17, 2010 (Korean), and Seung-hwa Yoo, Ki-sup Lee, Jin-Han Kim and Chong-Hwa Park, “Wintering Avifauna and Community Changes in response to Agricultural Intensification in Cheorwon, Korea,” Journal of Korean Nature vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 287-292, 2011.

[v] Archibald, “Crane Habitat Restoration,” p. 3.

[vi] Although “organic farming” (유기농업) in North Korea differs significantly from what permaculturalists in the West would consider organic, the turn away from chemical fertilizers and pesticides has been on the state agenda since Kim Jong Il’s promulgation of the organic industry law in 2005 [Randall Ireson, “Food Security in North Korea: Designing Realistic Possibilities.” Shorenstein APARC, Stanford University, 2006 (February), p. 12]. As quoted in SAOS’s “Guide to Organic Farming Technology” (DPRK State Academy of Science 2011), which was published with assistance from the Hanns Seidel Foundation, Kim Jong Il himself wrote: “The use of lots of chemical fertilizers creates acidification of farmland and destroys the ecological environment. Today, many nations around the world are using fewer chemical fertilizers and are heading in the direction of using microbiological fertilizers and organic fertilizers to farm. We must turn towards using fewer chemical fertilizers and farm using microbiological fertilizers and organic fertilizers” (SAOS 2011, p. 1). Rather than a return to the permanent agriculture celebrated in Franklin H. King’s 1911 Forty Centuries of Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan, the DPRK encourages a kind of industrial organic agriculture that produces organic chemicals like nitrogen and amino acids that can replace the petroleum-based fertilizers that were supplied by the USSR and then by South Korea. Accordingly, the Pisan Collective Farm complex includes a facility for producing organic inputs.

[vii]Pledging to prioritize economically viable solutions to climate change and the global environmental crisis, President Lee Myung-bak has been aggressively promoting his platform of “Low-Carbon Green Growth” as a model of sustainable development that can also be exported to developing nations. At the recent Rio +20, which was considered to be a depressing failure by most accounts, Lee’s Green Growth provided one of the few rays of hope, despite the fact that environmental NGOs in South Korea and internationally have widely criticized Lee and the Ministry of Environment for sacrificing “green” at the altar of economic growth, especially in projects related to water management such as the “restoration” of the nation’s four major rivers.

[viii] Prior to the UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) International Co-ordinating Council’s meeting in Paris in July 2012, Pyongyang reportedly sent dissenting letters to the other member nations. However, according to Professor of life science Cho Do-Soon’s editorial, this attempt to discredit South Korea’s proposal was not taken seriously by the council. Progressive environmentalists like Green Korea United nevertheless urged the chair of the MAB council to consider how the DMZ’s designation might affect already fragile inter-Korean relations, as it would be viewed by North Korea as a violation of the armistice agreement. Ultimately, the reasons cited by International Co-ordinating Council for deferring South Korea’s application focused on the exclusion of the county of Cheolwon from the biosphere reserve area.

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  1. Wonderful article and great research. It will be extremely interesting to see how conservation issues and baseline ecological conditions evolve at this interface between a poor country with more pressing priorities than bird conservation but less of a direct impact on natural habitats, and a wealthy country which can afford the emerging ecological consciousness to value conservation, both only because it is equipped with the capability to intensively drain and develop critical wetlands.

    It is not always clear which constellation is best from the point of view of the wildlife. For example, Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands in Russia are in many ways more biodiverse and productive, with healthier fish, bird and mammal populations than adjacent territories in Alaska or Japan. But this is less a consequence of any enforcement of environmental regulations than of the relative incompetence of Russian industry in exploiting marine resources and the borderland paranoia that has always marked Russian policy. There is, simply, far more effort expended in chasing away any foreign (especially Japanese or Korean) fishing vessels from the Okhotsk and Bering seas than there is in fishing the seas themselves.

    On the face of it, it seems that nothing would bode better for the crane than continued tensions guaranteeing an undeveloped DMZ. But perhaps a viable ecotourism model, which reasonably benefits the North Koreans and checks the development urges of the South, can be cobbled together – presumably with major international cooperation. Certainly, the unique experience of the Pisan Collective Farm is an odd and hopeful template.

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