How Korea saved its forests

December 15, 2011

The planting of 11 billion trees to re-established the forests on the Korean peninsular that were destroyed by centuries of human encroachment, wars and climate change, has created a massive resource for this highly industrialised country.

Michal Brink in Korea Stand of Pinus densiflora
Michal in a typical Korean landscape – rice fields in the valleys, traditional Korean house on the forest edge and forests in the steeper areas. Stand of Pinus densiflora.
Pulpwood loading in Korea
Pulpwood being loaded onto a conventional truck – note the three back axles.


When one thinks of South Korea, then household names like Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia come to mind, and not necessarily the fact that Korea has over six million ha of forests.
The Korean peninsula is located in the heart of the North Western Pacific, sharing a border with China and Russia to the north and lying near the Japanese archipelago to the south. It extends about 960 km southward and its width is about 170 km from east to west, surrounded by three oceans and nearly 70% of the terrain is mountainous. The majority of the country is afforested (64%), while 20% is agricultural land.

The Korean peninsula lies in the temperate forest zone and has a temperate climate characterised by four distinct seasons. Summers are hot and humid, while the winters are cold due to the northwesterly winds sweeping down from Siberia. Annual mean rainfall ranges from 1 000 mm to 1 800 mm with uneven seasonal distribution.

By around 6000 BC, the climate in northeast Asia was characterised by frequent and excessive rainfall, which resulted in the widespread occurrence of deciduous tree species including oak, willow and elm. Later, a gradual decline in temperature, with reduced precipitation, favoured conifers. The distribution of pines began around 3000 BC in the southern and central parts of the country. Around 100 BC, deforestation for creating more croplands was prevalent. South Korean farmers continued to use the nation's forests for fuel and household products, but the centuries of over-utilisation and poor resource management practically denuded the countryside by the end of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910). A worrying pace of deforestation continued due to wars and land conversion to cropland. Under Japanese colonisation in the early 20th century, forests were still excessively utilised and the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 also caused more degradation of forests. The devastated forests led to serious social and environmental problems e.g. lack of fuel, severe floods and droughts.

After the 1950s, Seoul slowly developed the organisational and technical expertise to save the nation's trees. In what was probably the best orchestrated and publicly cohesive reforestation event in world history, the people of South Korea came together in the 1970s and 1980s and reforested their country. Reforestation was required at the time primarily for developing a domestic timber supply to support its largely rural and agrarian economy. The Republic of Korea planted around 11 billion trees until 2008 in order to restore the denuded forests.

Coniferous forests predominate, comprising almost half the forest area. The predominant coniferous species are Japanese larch (Larix leptolepis), pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis). Broad-leaved forests include species such as oak, and occupy 28% of the total forest area. The other 27% is covered with mixed forest.

Large mammals such as tigers, bears, and lynx were once abundant throughout the Korean peninsula. However, many have disappeared due to human settlement, loss of forest habitat and over-hunting. The Siberian tiger, bears and wildcats may still be found in the more remote areas. An interesting environmental benefit emerged from the establishment of a demilitarised zone (DMZ), a strip of land on the border between North and South Korea. It has been untouched since 1953, thereby becoming a haven for wildlife, particularly migrating birds.

Korea has an extensive wood processing industry based largely on imported wood. The main products from forests in Korea are non-wood forest products, such as chestnuts and mushrooms, which are major exports.

Today, South Korea has become one of the industrial powerhouses of the world, with the future role of forests being debated within the country. It is now one of the world's most densely populated countries with a rapidly increasing industrial economy, and more than half its population is urban. The role of forests as a recreational haven for the highly developed urban population is now being debated by many community groups.

Published in October 2011

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