Choi Jong Soo and I are driving down a two-lane highway surrounded by rice fields, acres and acres of them, lying fallow for the winter. A few miles in the distance are mountains that seem too steep and jagged for their modest heights. We pass checkpoints, roadblocks. Heavily armed soldiers eye us from small huts. Every so often, helicopters sweep overhead. We are in the Cheorwon Basin, a little more than two hours northeast of Seoul, South Korea, and less than one mile from the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, the 2.5-mile-wide no man’s land that separates North and South Korea. Choi, my guide, nods at the mountains. “North Korea,” he says. “Very close.”
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A couple of weeks before I arrived, North Korean forces had shelled Yeonpyeong Island, off the west coast of the Korean peninsula. Two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed—the first civilian deaths in decades. The Korean War began in 1950 when the United Nations and the United States helped the South repel an invasion from the North. At least three million died, including 58,220 Americans. The 1953 armistice brought an uneasy end to hostilities, but the two countries never signed a peace treaty and are still technically at war. Many South Koreans with whom I’ve spoken seem to have taken the latest developments in stride. For them, North Korea is like a fault, or a volcano, or some other intermittent, potentially cataclysmic phenomenon over which they have no control. I, however, am a little on edge.
Choi and I turn onto a dirt road and are soon navigating the maze of narrow, rutted dikes that demarcate the fields. The SUV bucks and heaves; flocks of mallards and white-fronted geese flurry into the air. Suddenly, Choi points out my window and exclaims, “Turumi!” I look but see nothing. He gestures more emphatically, so I take another look. Straining, and then pulling out my binoculars, I see two—no, three—white dots about half a mile away. They are red-crowned cranes, two adults and a chick, foraging among ordered bristles of rice stalks. I glance back at Choi and shake my head. How did he see them so far away? He grins. “Soldier’s eyes,” he says.
Twenty years ago he was a captain in the South Korean Army, stationed in a fishing port near the border. He was on watch one morning, he says through an interpreter, when he saw an enormous white bird fly overhead. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. It was a red-crowned crane, and he resolved to learn everything he could about it. Today he works for the Korean Society to Protect Birds.
Choi does regular surveys of the two crane species—the red-crowned and the white-naped—that winter here in the Cheorwon Basin. Every morning at 5:00, he drives out to these fields to count all the crane families he can find and spread out grain for them. Each family consists of two adults—they may mate for life and can live more than 25 years—and one or two chicks, which stay with their parents for about three months.
The rest of the year, Choi works with local farmers, teaching them about the birds and how to protect them. Sometimes he helps the farmers harvest crops. In exchange, he asks them to leave their fields unplowed so that cranes will have more waste rice to forage on come winter.
Whenever we approach a flock of cranes, Choi says, “Gwen-cha-no, gwen-cha-no.” You’re OK, you’re OK. If the cranes leap away in flight, he calls, “Mi-an-he, mi-an-he!” Sorry, sorry! Once, we saw 15 cranes feeding. We rolled slowly toward them. They leaned into the wind, their necks stiff, prepared to flee. We stopped, and Choi hunched down behind the steering wheel. The cranes relaxed. Choi exhaled slowly. Then two helicopters burst out from behind a hillside, and the cranes vaulted away.
The red-crowned crane is one of the rarest birds in the world; fewer than 3,000 survive in the wild. (The whooping crane, in North America, is even more rare, with 382 in the wild.) It has two main populations. One lives year-round on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Thousands of people visit special feeding stations each winter—high courtship season—to watch the birds call and leap and dance in the snow.
The other population breeds in the wetlands of the Amur and Ussuri rivers in southeast Russia and northern China. These birds migrate to coastal areas in China’s Jiangsu Province or to the Korean peninsula. Scientists assume this population fared poorly during World War II and the Korean War, given that cranes favor large, open, quiet spaces.
But since the 1953 cease-fire, the DMZ has become something of an unintended nature reserve. The 154-mile-long borderland, once densely populated and farmed, was abandoned. Trees and grasslands replaced towns and crops. Not that the land is entirely unmolested. On one edge is the one-million-strong North Korean Army; on the other are 600,000 South Korean and 17,000 U.S. soldiers. Between them are tank traps, infiltration tunnels and as many as a million land mines. But species that were otherwise eliminated from the rest of the peninsula—the Asiatic black bear, for instance, or the Siberian musk deer—still lurk in the midst of all that poised firepower.