Ecosystem and Biodiversity

The Ecosystem of the Korean Peninsula

The Korean Peninsula has very unique geographical and climatic conditions. The diversity of the ecosystem has been maintained by the mountain range running from Mt. Baekdu down to Mt. Jiri as well as the physiographical conditions shaped by it, and the geographical condition of being surrounded by seas on three sides. The mountainous regions that take up two-thirds of the territory and three thousand or so islands together create breathtaking scenery, while providing various habitats for diverse species. As Korea's leading biological habitats, Mt. Baekdudaegan, Jeju Island, Ulleungdo, and West Coast lagoons stand out.
Along the forest on the axis of Mt. Baekgudaegan, the peninsular ecosystem can be categorized into farm land, fresh water, islands/coasts, and seas. Forest takes up 64% of the entire territory of Korea. While there exist a variety of vegetation zones from subtropical to temperate in terms of forest physiognomy, coniferous forest occupies the largest area at 41%, deciduous forest at 27%, and mixed coniferous-deciduous forest at 29%. As a single species of plant, pine trees are most commonly distributed accounting for 27% of the entire forest area. Broad-leaved evergreens grow on the south coast and islands, while frigid conifers grow in high mountains and the northern region.
The agricultural ecosystem takes up 17.9% of the total land, 60% in paddies and 40% in fields. With rapid urbanization, farm land continues to diminish. In particular, paddies, which serve as habitat for aquatic organisms, is decreasing in noticeable pace.
Geomorphologically, the freshwater ecosystem is formed along the rivers gently flowing into the West Sea and South Sea, whereas many of the rivers flowing into the East Sea are short and rapid. Since the precipitation is heavily biased seasonally, the amount of flowing water is large in the rainy season and small for the rest of the year. The river ecosystem is greatly disturbed by physical factors such as dam construction, straightening, aggregate extraction, and embankment. Wetlands are relatively well-preserved in areas around large rivers, such as Upo on Nakdong River. On the other hand, they are rare around lakes, since many of Korea's lakes are artificial and their water level show large fluctuation.
As for the coastal ecosystems, the west and south coast have a large area of mud flat, totalling 2,489㎢. The total length of the coastline is 12,682km, of which 78% is natural. Coastal and marine areas of Korea have a good scenic value with bays, lagoons, mud flats, shoals, and underwater areas and serve as resources for ecotourism.

Diverse Species in Korea
▲ Diverse Species in Korea


The country has unique topography, terrains, and climate conditions including well-developed coastlines, clear-cut four seasons under the influence of seasonal winds, thousands of islands, diverse vegetation zones ranging from subtropical  to frigid, and flood and typhoon. For this reason, compared to other countries in the temperate zone, Korea is inhabited by relatively diverse species as per its land size, with the number of native species estimated at 100,000. The total number of biological species recorded as of 2012 is 39,150, including 5,281 plants, 1,889 for vertebrates, 20,613 invertebrates, and 11,367 micro-organisms. The number of endemic species inhabiting Korea is 2,177 (as of 2011).


The biggest threat to biodiversity is the loss of habitat. As land use is increasingly changed such as conversion of forest 12,000ha of forest disappears every year despite afforestation, colony restoration, and natural restoration leading to gradual decrease of habitat. Biodiversity is also threatened by climate change and invasion of alien species. With summer temperature rising, the growth of Korean fir, an endemic species, is decreasing, and with rising sea water temperature tropical species are clambering onto the country's coastal areas. The total number of alien animal and plant species that are naturally or artificially introduced into the country stands at 1,128 (309 plant species and 819 animal species). Of these species, 18 species that disturb the ecosystem and encroach onto the habitat of endemic species are designated as ecosystem disturbing species and kept under control.
Wildlife species endangered by natural or artificial threats are under legal protection according to the severity of the risk. Based on the 「Act on Wildlife Protection and Management」, the number of designated  'endangered wildlife species' increased from 221 to 246 in 2012 (51 Category I species and 195 Category II species). 57 species have been newly listed, while, 32 previously designated species that have escaped the risk of extinction or no longer inhabit the country have been deleted.

 Meanwhile, the program for managing the export of species has been in service since 2002, with the purpose of creating lists for endemic species inhabiting the Korean Peninsula or species with economic value and protecting them from being taken out of the country  indiscriminately. Currently, the total number of species designated as biological resources requiring authorization for export comes at 1,971, and the figure is expected to increase to 3,000 in 2014. The designated species list includes 670 insects, 104 arachnids, 596 plants, 110 mollusks, 181 other invertebrates, 116 mycomycetes, 107 seaweeds, 76 fish, 10 lichens and 1 reptile.

In 2010, the National Institute of Biological Resources selected 100 Climate-Sensitive Biological Indicator Species in order to perform an effective monitoring and prediction on the influence and vulnerability that climate change impose on the species distribution on the Korean Peninsula. They are the representative indicator organisms expected to increase or decrease their habitat, or concerned for extinction in the face of global warming. The list includes 18 vertebrates, 28 invertebrates, 44 plants, and 10 fungi/algae.

Conservation and Use of Natural Environment

Designation of Protected Areas

Korea is protecting and managing areas especially worthy of protection for its excellent ecosystem and abundant biodiversity, by designating them as Ecological and Scenery Conservation Areas and others. As of June 2010, the ecologically protected areas are as follows: 39 Ecological and Scenery Conservation Areas (362.31㎢), 29 Wetland Preserving Regions (332.99㎢) and 170 Special Islands (10.545㎢) including Dokdo.

Also, many areas are registered or designated as international conservation areas such as Ramsar Wetland and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Total 18 areas including Yongneup marsh of Mt. Daeam, Uponeup marsh, and Suncheon Bay mudflat were listed as Ramsar Wetlands, while Mt. Seorak, Jeju Island, Shinan Dadohae and Gwangneung Forest were designated as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.

Natural parks are designated and managed to protect natural ecosystems, breathtaking natural scenery and cultural heritage, so that citizens can continuously enjoy them. Natural parks are divided into national parks, provincial parks, county parks, and Geoparks. As of late 2012, there are 78 natural parks (total area of 7,910km2), 21 national parks (6,656km2), 29 provincial parks (1,005km2), and 28 county parks (240km2). Geopark is a system newly established in 2012. Geoparks are determined through certification instead of designation, and two locations (Jeju Island and Ulleungdo/Dokdo) have been certified. Especially Jeju Island was certified by UNESCO as Global Geopark in October, 2010.


Eco-friendly Use of Natural Environment

As vacation is enjoyed more than ever before with the introduction of five-day workweek and general improvement of life quality, leisure activities taking more than two days are increasingly in demand. Particularly with the rapid progress of urbanization (urbanization rate at 91.1% as of 2011), eco-tours that provide citizens with visits to natural, historical, and cultural resources are in high demand.

Areas with excellent eco-tour resources see particularly increasing number of visitors. National parks, as the leading eco-tour destinations, attract 40 million visitors each year since the removal of admission fee in 2007.

The visitors flocking to national parks inflict much damage on the hiking trails and their surroundings. While repair work on hiking trails continued, 'Nationwide Eco-Tour Routes Creation Project' was pushed for as a policy that would provide a systematic protection of natural, cultural and historical resources and meet the popular demand for eco-tour. After Nationwide Eco-Tour Routes Creation Plan was drawn up in 2007 with the aim of creating 1,000km National Eco-Tour Routes by 2012, KRW 13.25 billion was spent in 49 locations from 2008 to 2012. As of late 2012, total 1,084.3km of eco-tour routes were completed.

Local governments are also promoting ecotourism to vitalize the local economy through conservation of local ecosystems. Among the successful cases of ecotourism projects led by local governments are Suncheon Bay and Uponeup. In the case of Suncheon Bay, citizens' campaign contributed to conserve estuary wetlands, while the local government developed various programs including bird watch and reed festival, turning the eco-tour into a brand. 2011 saw an inrush of 3.6 million visitors, bringing with them economic benefits worth KRW 150 billion. In the case of Uponeup, on the occasion of Ramsar Convention Meeting held in October 2008, inland wetland, previously thought to be useless, turned into an excellent eco-tour destination as the infrastructures including ecological experience hall and tour routes were developed.


Uponeup, a Ramsar Wetland
▲ Uponeup, a Ramsar Wetland

Last modified : 2013-10-29 15:45

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