Between North and South Korea lies the demilitarized zone (DMZ), one of the world’s most heavily armed borders. The 160-mile stretch is barred with fences and landmines and is largely empty of human activity.
But that isolation has inadvertently turned the area into a haven for wildlife. Google released street view images of the DMZ for the first time this week, offering a rare glimpse into the flora and fauna that inhabit this no man’s land.
The images are part of a project done in collaboration with several Korean institutions to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, which brought hostilities to a halt in 1953 and mapped out the DMZ, though technically the war never ended as no peace treaty was ever signed.
The project allows viewers to take a “virtual tour” with Google’s street view function, highlighting cultural relics and heritage sites near the DMZ such as war-torn buildings and defense bunkers.
But the most surprising images are of the more than 6,100 species thriving in the DMZ, ranging from reptiles and birds to plants.
Of Korea’s 267 endangered species, 38% live in the DMZ, according to Google.
“After the Korean War, the DMZ had minimal human interference for over 70 years, and the damaged nature recovered on its own,” it said on its site. “As a result, it built up a new ecosystem not seen around the cities and has become a sanctuary for wildlife.”
The DMZ’s inhabitants include endangered mountain goats who live in the rocky mountains; musk deer with long fangs who live in old-growth forests; otters who swim along the river running through the two Koreas; and endangered golden eagles, who often spend their winters in civilian border areas where residents feed the hungry hunters.
Many of the images were captured by unmanned cameras installed by South Korea’s National Institute of Ecology. In 2019, these cameras photographed a young Asiatic black bear for the first time in 20 years – delighting researchers long concerned with the endangered population’s decline due to poaching and habitat destruction.
Seung-ho Lee, president of the DMZ Forum, a group that campaigns to protect the area’s ecological and cultural heritage, told CNN in 2019 that the DMZ had also become an oasis for migratory birds because of worsening conditions on either side of the border. Logging and flooding had damaged North Korean land, while urban development and pollution had fragmented habitats in South Korea, he said.
“We call the region an accidental paradise,” he said at the time.
The Google images also show pristine, biodiverse landscapes. Users can use street view to explore the Yongneup high moor, boasting wide grassy fields filled with wetland plants, or the Hantan River Gorge, with turquoise water snaking between high granite walls.
Many voices in both the Koreas and international environmental organizations have been calling for the conservation of the DMZ for decades. But the process isn’t easy, as it requires cooperation from both Seoul and Pyongyang.
There has been some progress in recent years, with former South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowing in 2018 to turn the DMZ into a “peace zone.” The following year, South Korea opened the first of three “peace trails” for a limited number of visitors along the DMZ, bringing hikers past observatories and barbed-wire fences.
However, relations have deteriorated since then, with tensions skyrocketing in 2022 as North Korea fired a record number of missiles, and as a new South Korean president took office.