South Korea has filed an application with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to turn a portion of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea into what is known as a biosphere reserve, an internationally recognized conservation site with a focus on sustainable development. There are currently 580 other UNESCO biosphere reserves in 114 countries, including four in South Korea.

The DMZ extends for 250 kilometers from coast to coast and measures about four kilometers wide, two kilometers on each side from the border between the two countries. It has been in place since the Korean War armistice in 1953. The UNESCO application seeks to protect the 425 square kilometers of the DMZ closest to South Korea, as well as an additional 2,554 square kilometers of South Korean territory.

People are only allowed into the DMZ with special permits, so it has been pretty much left alone for more than 50 years. Although the area is full of land mines, it has become a haven for many rare species. According to a statement from the Republic of Korea Ministry of Environment, 2,716 species live within the DMZ, many of them endangered. A survey released at the beginning of 2010 revealed that many species found in the DMZ are almost extinct in other parts of South Korea, including the Amur leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis euptilurus or euptilura), the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) and the Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus).

Other endangered species known to exist in the DMZ include the white-napped crane (Grus vipio), Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and possibly the critically endangered Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), one of the world's rarest big cats. Some scientists suspect that there may even be a few Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) in the DMZ, but no conclusive evidence has ever been found.

Turning the DMZ into a protected area for wildlife is not a new idea. It was first proposed in the 1990s, when scientists expressed fears that any eventual reunification of the Koreas could lead to problems for the animals in the zone that had not seen human interference for decades. In 2005 media mogul Ted Turner proposed turning the DMZ into a "peace park" and U.N. World Heritage Site.

If South Korea obtains the UNESCO biosphere designation, the nation promises to protect the region under both its Wetland Conservation and Cultural Properties Protection acts, to promote ecotourism in the area, and to revise its Natural Environment Conservation Act to provide funding for the area.

Of course, neither Korea has the greatest environmental record. According to the CIA's World Factbook, environmental issues in South Korea include acid rain as well as air and water pollution from sewage and factories. (A large portion of South Korea's air pollution problem actually originates in China.) A 2003 U.N. report on North Korea's environment found massive deforestation, polluted rivers and poor air quality. Last year North Korea accepted a shipment of endangered animals from Zimbabwe, and reportedly stages fights between endangered animals for sale on videos, some of which have leaked into South Korea.

UNESCO will discuss South Korea's DMZ biosphere reserve application at a meeting in June 2012.

Photo: Amur leopard, via Wikipedia