Degradation, urbanization, and restoration: A review of the challenges and future of conservation on the Korean Peninsula

Sang Don Lee, Abraham J. Miller-Rushing

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Human history on the Korean Peninsula has left natural resource managers with a number of serious challenges regarding the preservation of biodiversity and ecosystem functions. The Korean Peninsula covers 222,403km2 and contains a mountainous interior, many islands, and biodiversity-rich coastal and marine areas. Biodiversity on the peninsula is not well documented, especially in North Korea, but the peninsula is estimated to host at least 100,000 species, and perhaps manyfold more. Roughly 6% of species identified to date are endemic, and among vertebrate species in South Korea, 29% of mammals, 14% of birds, 23% of freshwater fishes, 48% of reptiles, and 60% of amphibians are estimated to be at risk of extinction or have been extirpated from the peninsula. The situation is likely worse in North Korea. Species still occurring on the Korean Peninsula have survived near total deforestation of the landscape, heavy fishing, pollution, and, in South Korea, a period of rapid urbanization since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Conservation challenges are particularly dire in North Korea, where environmental degradation has impaired the country's ability to sustain agriculture, clean air and water, and other fundamental ecosystem services. Conservation faces significant challenges in South Korea, too, given the country's goal to continue to develop one of the world's most advanced and urbanized economies. Natural resource managers in both North and South Korea are pursuing large-scale restoration of forests, wetlands, lakes and rivers, and coastlines as a primary conservation strategy. In addition, South Korea is aggressively developing a "green economy" and is hosting international environmental meetings, attempting to take a leadership role as a convener of innovative thinking in conservation. North and South Korea are also implementing more common land protection techniques, such as the creation of national parks and other protected areas. These protected areas include the exceptional case of the 100,000-ha (250km×4km) Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that forms the border between North and South Korea. The DMZ was not created for conservation reasons, but has provided an important refuge for many species. Other well-known protected areas include Jeju Island and Baekdu Daegan Mountain, both of which host many species important for conservation. Together, these conservation actions show promise and may allow the Korean Peninsula to preserve its biodiversity and regain some of its important ecosystem services. South Korea, in particular, provides an example for attempting to balance economic development and conservation in an area with a long history of human exploitation. North Korea is much farther behind in its conservation efforts, but is now beginning planning for large-scale restoration projects, which if implemented may help reverse its long trend of environmental degradation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)262-276
Number of pages15
JournalBiological Conservation
StatePublished - Aug 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this project came from the Korean Government ( NRF 2009-83527 ) Greenriver (2014), BK ecocreative (2012), SGEC(2014) and the Korea Environmental Industry and Technology Institute (KEITI) ( 403-112-005 ). The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the funding agencies or the Department of the Interior or the U.S. Government.


  • Demilitarized zone
  • Jeju Island
  • Korean Peninsula
  • North Korea
  • Restoration
  • South Korea


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