The 18th and 19th Century French author and diplomat, Chateaubriand, once wrote that “there is a forest before civilization and a desert that remains after civilization.” Standing on South Korean soil today, it is hard to imagine the devastation that followed the Korean War (1950–1953), a conflict that left the nation in ruins and its mountain forests denuded.
By 2021, South Korea achieved almost complete reforestation. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN reported in 1982 that, “Korea is the only developing country that has succeeded in forest rehabilitation after World War II.” World-renowned environmental activist, Lester R. Brown, declared in his 2008 book PLAN B 3.0: “South Korea is a reforestation model for the world. We can reforest the earth.”
What can the world learn from South Korea’s reforestation “model,” particularly those nations whose forests suffer from the impacts of poverty and strife?
The South Korean reforestation story begins with failed initial efforts, a people’s natural love for their forests, and a strong-willed leader stepping in to make reforestation a high priority.
Reforestation Halted by the Outbreak of War
South Korea’s first attempts at reforestation began after World War II. However, their efforts were completely wiped out after the outbreak of the Korean War a few years later.
Following the Korean War, little of Korea’s forests remained intact. The harvesting of fuel-wood for traditional heating and cooking further accelerated the deterioration of the nation’s bare forest soils.
In response to the dire situation, multi-year South Korean erosion control and reforestation plans were declared throughout the 1950s and 1960s. With inadequate government supervision, however, most of these plans were discontinued within a few years of their launch. South Koreans concluded that government plans for reforestation were made with no real intention of carrying them out.
Success Begins with a Strong-willed Leader
Leading South Korea after a coup d’état in 1961 and later as president from 1963 until his assassination in 1979, Park Chung-Hee was determined to quickly reforest the nation. He elevated the importance of reforestation within his administration by inviting the minister of the Korean Forest Service to the government’s monthly economic meetings and giving the Korean Forest Service more substantial powers than those of other institutions.
President Park frequently made personal visits to reforestation sites in order to monitor the progress of his government’s reforestation and afforestation (establishing trees where they were previously non-existent) efforts.
The First National Plan (1973-1978)
The Park administration’s major reforestation initiative was Korea’s keystone “Ten-Year National Greening Plan” (1973–1978). To facilitate the plan, the Forestry Administration began to systematically analyze the status of Korea’s forests and implement afforestation, erosion control, and investment plans.
In addition, South Korea’s national forest police cracked down on destructive logging, over-harvesting of trees, forest fires, illegal entry into forests, and violators of compulsory reforestation regulations for logging operations. Strict implementation of these measures contributed significantly to early greening efforts.
All Korean villages, offices, homes, students, and both government and non-government organizations were encouraged to plant trees and tend forests as a daily responsibility. An annual national planting day, previously held on April 5, was expanded to become an annual national planting period from March 21 to April 20.
The first Ten-Year National Greening Plan set a goal to accomplish complete re-vegetation of South Korea’s denuded forests within ten years from 1973 to 1982, but the plan was completed by 1978, four years ahead of schedule. Reforestation goals were over-achieved by thousands of hectares.
The Second National Plan—Going Commercial (1979–1987)
South Korea’s second national greening plan built on the successes of its first, but central policy shifted from a nationwide, compulsory public reforestation campaign to the establishment of large-scale commercial plantations. In all, eighty commercial plantations were established to raise species such as Korean white pine, pitch-loblolly pine, and larch.
The government’s implementation energies shifted to providing technical extension services. Meanwhile, voluntary, cooperative activities between villagers and small-scale private forest management were encouraged.
Under the second national plan, South Korea’s reforested areas grew to include 966,000 hectares (ha) of artificially planted areas and 109,000 ha of naturally tended forests.
The Third National Plan—A Move to Multi-use Development (1988–1997)
Korea’s Forestry Administration joined the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery in 1988, strengthening its forest establishment policies and simultaneously launching its third ten-year plan, the Forest Resource Establishment Plan. The focus of the new plan was to integrate commercial and environmental forestry through multiple-use forest resource management. This initiative assigned “use-value” to forests, such as recreation-value and habitat-provision-value, as well as economic value, as measured by their provision of lumber.
The forests of South Korea grow where temperate and warm forest zones meet, thus creating great species diversity. The Korean people love nature and fervently indulge in outdoor leisure pursuits, including forest recreation. The collection of forest products such as wild vegetables, medicinal herbs, sap, and Matsutake mushrooms is a popular Korean pursuit. With the rapid growth of the nation’s “leisure population,” an economic strategy to promote the multiple uses of mountain resources was necessary to accommodate Koreans’ growing outdoor recreational activities.
The poor commercial quality of South Korea’s fledgling commercial forests forced the nation to import timber from other countries. The climate for importing timber was not favorable, however, due to decreasing worldwide timber stocks per capita and a global emphasis on forest conservation. Timber exporting countries responded by crafting strict trade regulations to preserve their resources and forcefully requested that importing countries, such as South Korea, adopt low or duty-free tariff rates for imported timber.
For these reasons, South Korea needed to increase its own timber stock. As a part of the third national plan, the Forestry Administration established a Forestry Buildup Region, which consisted of 1,519 thousand ha, stretching across 515 sites that were expected to increase the domestic timber supply.
The Fourth and Fifth National Plans Target Sustainability and Climate Change (1998-2017)
The fourth national forest plan (1998–2007) was established to achieve the goal of "building a foundation for sustainable management." Forest management policy shifted from planting to cultivation. Employment in the forest sector was expanded to care for the nation’s 2.25 million ha of forested land, including the Baekdudaegan mountainous region that runs like a spine, north and south, through the Korean peninsula.
Beginning in 2008, the fifth National Forest Basic Plan (2008–2017) was established to develop forest education programs, recreational services, and healing opportunities as civic demand for forest use grew.
In addition to meeting the needs of its own citizens, the South Korean government expanded development assistance to support forest restoration in developing countries.
A New Sixth Plan for the Future
The current sixth National Forest Basic Plan is the nation’s first twenty-year plan, designed to work with all relevant national plans, such as land and environmental plans. The plan’s goals are clear: To foster healthy and valuable forests that promote the public interest, provide quality forestry jobs, and help North Korea restore its devastated forests in preparation for the future reunification of the Korean peninsula.
*Jong-Choon Woo, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of Kangwon National University in the Republic of Korea.