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Militarized Ecologies, Environmental Racism, and Degradation


Ecological destruction has been part and parcel of the Korean peninsula’s militarization in the decades following the battle phase of the Korean War. This “manifestation” of the ongoing Korean War inquires into the linkages between the war’s unresolved ecological and environmental crises, on the one hand, and racial imperialism, on the other. For instance, the village of Gangjeong on Jeju Island was the site of over a decade of resistance against the construction of a naval base on a critical conservation and cultural heritage site (Gureombi). In the above screenshot of Grace Kim’s The Memory of the 25th Hour, activists gather in solidarity against militarization and ecological destruction, two things that have gone hand-in-hand on Jeju. In a classic militourist move, the militarization of Gangjeong was cast—in billboards around the village—as an opportunity for tourists to enjoy the beauty of the seaside. Further north on the Korean peninsula, the “greenwashing” of the DMZ that roughly bisects the Korean peninsula without a corresponding interrogation of the ongoing Korean War is another example of the perverse utopianization of militarized ecologies. The everyday impact of the militarization of land, air, and ocean and the dispossession of local peoples (farmers, seafarers, diving women) requires a shift away from static discourses of the Korean War as found in studies of military history, politics, and governance. This manifestation invites us, by contrast, to understand militarized violence as inextricable from ongoing environmental justice concerns. It seeks to shed critical light on militarized contamination, base infrastructures, ecological and multispecies toxicities, and decolonial community resistance as interconnected legacies of the unended Korean War. 


Militarized contamination

Forced displacement

Militarized ecologies

Environmental racism/colonialism


Multispecies survival

Greenwashing of DMZ

Gureombi 구럼비  

Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)

Study Materials

[Article] Davis, Sasha, “Military Natures: Militarism and the Environment,” Geojournal (2007): 131-134. 

Sasha Davis’s essay provides a framework for understanding the intersection of militarism and the environment. It introduces a collection of essays that survey the widespread impact that military activities have had on landscapes and ecologies around the world. As Davis notes, “military activities do not just destroy nature, they also actively produce it. As the articles in this issue demonstrate this production of nature in militarized environments has both material and discursive dimensions.” As the other study materials show, the U.S. military’s decades-long presence on the Korean peninsula has dramatically altered its ecology, producing militarized landscapes that are both covert (DMZ) and inconspicuous (redeveloped military base sites). How do we evaluate the environmental impact of the Korean War and the subsequent US military presence on the peninsula? How can environmental degradation be used as a framework to discuss the militarization of Korea alongside that of other regions around the world?

[Article] Chae, Young Geun, “Environmental Contamination at US Military Bases in South Korea and the Responsibility to Clean Up,” Environmental Law Reporter (2010): 10078-10097

U.S. Forces Korea recently began returning military sites to South Korea and, so far, has returned around one-half of the sites designated for reversion. For urban development, South Korea desperately needs this land. However, the returned sites suffer from contamination to both soil and groundwater at well above threshold levels determined by the Soil Environment Preservation Act and the Groundwater Act of South Korea. Though U.S. Department of Defense policy confers an obligation on the United States to remedy contamination that rises to the level of “known imminent and substantial endangerment,” so far, the United States and South Korea have not been able to agree on who bears responsibility for cleanup.

[Article] Kim, Eleana, “The Flight of Cranes: Militarized Nature at the North Korea-South Korea Border.” Asian Environments: Connections across Borders, Landscapes, and Times, eds. Ursula Münster, Shiho Satsuka, and Gunnel Cederlöf, RCC Perspectives (The Journal of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society) 3 (2014): 65-70

Conservation areas within the Korean demilitarized zone generate new “natures” that are deeply political and enmeshed in evolving relations among humans and nonhumans, as seen using the example of migratory cranes. The endangered cranes literally transcend geopolitical borders, providing hope for the surmounting of the ideological differences that separate North and South. At the same time, these cranes have exhibited rather remarkable adaptations to the conditions of the national division: they adapted to utilizing the T’ogyo Reservoir as a habitat in response to famine conditions in North Korea and hospitable feeding programs in Yangji village.

Drawing on research in the borderlands of South Korea near the Korean Demilitarized Zone, this essay analyzes the heterogeneous life of landmines in post-conflict militarized ecologies. Humanitarian narratives typically frame mines as deadly remnants of war, which aligns with postcolonial critiques viewing them as traces of imperial power and ongoing violence. Given that landmines and other unexploded ordnance can remain live for up to a hundred years, the author suggests that mines and minefields become infrastructural when their distributed agency is redistributed over time, bringing into view nonhuman agencies and affordances that might otherwise go undetected in humanitarian or postcolonial critiques. Kim offers the framework of rogue infrastructure to capture the volatile materiality of mines and their multiple natural, cultural, technical, and political entanglements with the humans who exist alongside them.

[Article] ---  2017. “Invasive Others and Significant Others: Strange Kinship and Interspecies Ethics Near the Korean Demilitarized Zone” Social Research Journal: An International Quarterly 84(1). 

This article reframes human-centric notions of the parasite beyond how humans might be considered invasive others. Instead, it explores the shifts between “guest” and “host” in the context of South Korean conversation biologists and their work on the Black-faced Spoonbill, specifically on Guji-do or Guji Islet, on which the author observes “the detritus of artillery shells” and “the remains of bombing targets in the ground” (208-209). Kim’s focus on regions near the DMZ and its existing biodiversity argues against the “greenwashing” of the DMZ and instead locates possibilities for alternative futures through the framework of “strange kinship.” Kim argues that the “highly contaminated spaces of militarized natures” produce new “parasitical relations that are also ones of care and interdependence” (205).

[Article] Knowles, Scott Gabriel, “Slow Disaster in the Anthropocene: A Historian Witnesses Climate Change on the Korean Peninsula,” Daedalus 149:4 (2020): 192-206

Despite their seeming reluctance to engage in the politics of the now, historians have a crucial role to play as witnesses to climate change and its attendant social injustices. Climate change is a product of industrialization, but its effects are known in different geographical and temporal scales through the compilation and analysis of historical narratives. This essay explores modes of thinking about disasters and temporality, the Anthropocene, and the social production of risk – set against a case study of the Korean DMZ as a site for historical witnessing. Historical methods are crucial if we are to investigate deeply the social processes that have produced climate change. A “slow disaster in the Anthropocene” approach might show the way forward.

[Article] Park, Albert, “The Reshaping of Landscapes: Systems of Mediation, War, and Slow Violence,” The Journal of Asian Studies 77:2 (2018): 365-368

In this introductory essay, Albert Park highlights the value of studying environmental issues on the Korean peninsula. He describes how the contributions to this journal issue explain how the state engineered nature for human needs, security, and later economic growth—simultaneously altering nature and remaking institutions, systems, and cultures that influenced people's agency and identity and reshaped forms of consciousness.

[Longform Political Analysis] Ahn, Christine and Gwyn Kirk,” Agent Orange in Korea,” Foreign Policy in Focus, July 7, 2011

This article examines the U.S. military’s decades-long history of dumping toxic chemicals in South Korea. It draws on whistleblower accounts of U.S. veterans stationed in South Korea; one estimated that 600 barrels of chemicals were buried outside of Camp Carroll, about 20 miles from the city of Daegu, while he was stationed in Korea during the 1970s. A 2004 study found more than 100 different harmful chemicals in the ground near the base. Furthermore, cancer rates in the area have risen almost 20% higher than the national average. The troubling accounts highlight the toxic environmental legacy of the Korean War and the subsequent militarization of the peninsula. The article suggests that the chemicals found in Korea were similar to those used in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War (notably, Agent Orange). Given this connection, can we use ecological degradation (and chemical legacies) as a way to connect the Korean War to other imperialist wars like Vietnam?

[Longform Political Analysis] Elich, Gregory, “The US Military’s Toxic Legacy in Korea,” Korea Policy Institute, September 12, 2016, originally published in ZoominKorea

This article provides a critical perspective on the environmental degradation caused by US military bases in South Korea. It focuses attention on the U.S. military’s evasion of responsibility for the decontamination base sites before their return to South Korea. Originally, environmental provisions were not included in the two country’s original Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which outlines the terms of stationing U.S. troops in the country. However, as the article notes, the 2001 SOFA agreement called for the United States to “promptly undertake to remedy contamination caused by United States Forces in Korea that poses a known, imminent and substantial endangerment to human health.” Despite these provisions, the United States resisted the demand to remediate sites to meet South Korean standards. What does the U.S. stance toward base site remediation tell us about the nature of SOFA agreement, which not only governs environmental degradation but a host of other issues like the prosecution of crimes committed by U.S. troops stationed in South Korea?

[News Article] Lim Ji-sun, et. al., “South Korean gov’t on the hook for $870 million to clean up US base contamination,” Hankyoreh, July 12, 2017

This news article details the ecological and economic impact of U.S. military bases in South Korea. It notes that “old, rusted oil tanks containing gasoline, diesel field, and JP-8 jet fuel” are buried throughout the Yongsan district of Seoul, remnants from the US military base that occupied the 2.8 million square meter area until 2018. In addition to the environmental impact, the economic impact of cleaning up military base contamination has been shouldered by the South Korean government, and by extension the South Korean people. In 2012, for example, the South Korean government spent $12.5 million to clean up Busan’s Camp Hialeah. How should we consider the costs of environmental cleanup and how it is divided, especially in light of the rhetoric that U.S. dollars “pay for” South Korean defense? More broadly, what does the cost of cleaning up military base contamination in South Korea tell us about the global impact of the U.S. military’s “empire of bases?”

[website] Real DMZ Project  

The REAL DMZ PROJECT (RDP) was conceived in 2011 to explore the (in)visible borders of the DMZ through the critical lens of contemporary art and to raise awareness about the division of Korea. Through collaborations with artists as well as experts in other fields of study such as history, sociology, architecture and ecology, the RDP has been conducting researches and producing artworks, exhibitions, publications and more that examine not only geographical borders but also invisible borders such as ideological and psychological divides that are operating in our life and society. The RDP has thus evolved into a decade-long study into the DMZ region and many other types and issues of borders that exist in contemporary society at large. From 2012 through 2016, the RDP’s programs centered around Cheorwon, a South Korean city located just north of the 38th parallel, where we organized annual exhibitions. In addition, in Yangji-ri, a small village that used to be situated inside the Civilian Control Line, the RDP established a residency program for artists and researchers, so they can stay there for days or months taking a closer look at the everyday realities of the border area.

[film] Bong Joon-ho, dir., The Host (2006), 119 min.

Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 film The Host (a closer translation for the Korean title is “The Creature”) was a box-office hit and has been viewed by at least a quarter of the South Korean population. In the film, a mutant creature emerges from the Han River after a U.S. mortician at the Yongsan military base orders his Korean assistant to pour hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde into the river. The story centers on a poor Seoul family who must rescue one of its members, a middle school girl Hyun-seo, from the monster’s lair in the sewers. The film depicts the inaction and fecklessness of the Seoul government, who claims that the monster is host to a deadly virus and quarantines the family for having been “exposed.” The government also greenlights the deployment of a toxic chemical called “Agent Yellow” (an unsubtle reference to Agent Orange) into the river in an attempt to incapacitate the monster. Based on a real event in 2000 of U.S. chemical dumping in the Han, Bong’s film is a science fiction critique of U.S.-led militarized pollution and South Korean complicity. It is also a latter-day twist on Honda Ishiro’s 1954 film Godzilla, in which the eponymous monster is awakened by U.S. nuclear tests in Bikini Atoll.


  1. How do we understand the Korean War and Korean partition through terms of ecological and environmental catastrophe? What are the ongoing material and structural traces of the Korean War in the landscape, air, and water (for example, the DMZ and military bases)?

  2. How does division configure an ongoing distribution of environmental harms and how does the critical work on partition absorb or advance debates on environmental justice? 

  3. How does understanding the Korean War through the lens of ecological violence provide an opportunity to frame environmental degradation as inherently linked to racism and imperialism?

  4. How are militarization and tourism linked in sites like Jeju and the DMZ? 

  5. How might we imagine a de-imperialized end to ecological degradation as also an end to the Korean War?

  6. What connections can we draw between Jeju 4.3 uprising and massacre and the destruction of Gureombi? Could the destruction of Gureombi be understood as a scorched-earth tactic? How so? What is the connection between and among the people of Gangjeong, local species like the narrow mouth frog, the red-footed crab, freshwater shrimp, and bottlenose dolphins, and Gureombi?

  7. Can you think of other parts of the world where militarization and racial imperialism have wrought ecological destruction? What similarities do you see with those discussed in this module? What differences? 

  8. How do the articles about the U.S. military base contamination help us better understand the premise of The Host? 

  9. How does the above image of protestors at Gureombi relate to the other images of protests against different facets of U.S. militarism on the peninsula found in other manifestations?

Image: Still from The Memory of the 25th Hour, dir. Sungeun Kim, 2017.

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