After the Seoul Symposium for the Smithsonian – (from left to right) Korean Collaboration. Eugene Knez, Harold Coolidge, Kim, Jong-pil (Korean politician), Frank Taylor, Lee, Doohyun (Korean anthropologist), and unknown, September 1966,, Smithsonian Instititution Archives, RU190 Box 51 Folder Korea/ Korean science museum, photographs and clippings, c. 1966.

“A Wildlife Paradise”: International Collaboration on the DMZ Ecology in the 1960s

The DMZ ecology project reveals the Smithsonian’s commitment to ecological research programs as well as the complexity and contingency of an international collaboration.

“Stepping across that line was a great honor.”

On June 30, 2019, President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border between North and South Korea. He stepped onto North Korean territory, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to set foot into the country. But, do you know “that line” Trump crossed has a significant meaning not only to Korean history but also to ecological research?

Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is a 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide strip of land demarcating the two Koreas. Since its establishment in 1953 by the Korean War Armistice Agreement, no humans have been allowed to enter this area, making the region an Accidental Wildlife Paradise. According to the Republic of Korea Ministry of Environment, the DMZ is home to at least 5,097 species, including about 106 protected species.

Proposal to Air Force Office of Scientific Researh on the DMZ Project prepared by the Smithsonian Of

In the 1960s, the ecological value of the DMZ area was already noticed by the scientists who studied conservation biology and natural resources. Harold J. Coolidge, director of the Pacific Science Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, visited South Korea in 1965 and suggested a long term survey of “Ecological Studies of Environmental Changes in DMZ.” In the very next month of Coolidge’s visit, Won Pyong Oh, ornithologist and Standing Director of the Korean Commission for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, and Korean biologists conducted preliminary research on biological features of the DMZ region.

Smithsonian officials and scientists met Korean participants in September 1966.

Ecological studies on DMZ drew attention from the Smithsonian scientists as well. The international projects in environmental research at the Smithsonian Institution set a milestone in the 1960s with the new Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley. As a former professor of Zoology at Yale University and director of the Peabody Museum, Ripley emphasized the ecological research on wild populations and undisturbed conditions in nature. Ripley’s personal connection to Coolidge and Won also attracted his interest in this ecological treasury. Ripley had known Coolidge since the 1940s when they both served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II as area specialists and naturalists. It was also Coolidge who recommended that Won work under Ripley as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University from 1962 to 1963.

A Korean Newspaper, Kyung Hyang Shin Min, covered the Buechner's interview and the DMZ project.

With support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the research project on DMZ ecology was initiated in August 1966. Helmut K. Buechner, director of the newly established Office of Ecology, was in charge of administering the project. Unlike other international ecological projects during which U.S. scientists investigated foreign environments, the DMZ project encouraged close cooperation among the Smithsonian and Korean scientists. For this purpose, Edwin L. Tyson, a zoologist at the National Museum of Natural History, was dispatched to South Korea and was responsible for representing the position of the Smithsonian Office of Ecology to Korean scientists. Under two co-principal investigators, Buechner and Kang Young Sun, professor of the Department of Zoology at Seoul National University, five teams of Korean biologists were organized for three fields of the ecological survey: geomorphology, flora, and fauna of DMZ.

The Smithsonian and Korean biologists left for the DMZ field survey.

Despite the efforts of Buechner and Tyson, the DMZ project failed to achieve a tangible outcome. First, the layers of miscommunication, including the language barriers and cultural differences, were predominant. As the interests of various stakeholders of the two countries, including the governments, military, embassy, and scientistific communities of both countries, were interwoven into the project, communication between the participants had to undergo the complicated process. The political situations of both countries were also not favorable. The U.S. intervention in Vietnam and continuing tension between the two Koreas slowed down other functions of the governments other than national defense. Most of all, the two countries had different priorities. While the Smithsonian scientists saw the DMZ project as an excellent opportunity to encourage the research on ecology in East Asia, its Korean counterpart sought to bring in foreign capital for scientific research in order to achieve the modernization of the country.

The failed DMZ project reveals the complexity and contingency of an international scientific collaboration. Understanding the common objectives through effective communication is what makes international collaborations challenging but also meaningful.  

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