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  Channel NewsAsia 18 Oct 07
Otters hailed as unofficial peace ambassadors of Korea

HWACHEON COUNTY, South Korea: The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea is the world's most heavily fortified border.

The strip of land is crisscrossed by barbed wire and dotted with landmines and bunkers.

But while Koreans from both sides are not allowed to cross the border freely, a group of animals - otters, to be precise - has been breaking all the rules.

These otters are being hailed as the unofficial peace ambassadors of Korea.

They regularly cross the heavily guarded border by using the river that flows through Hwacheon, a South Korean province that borders the communist North.

South Korean researchers discovered this when they followed the animals right up to the DMZ.

"To my surprise, the gaps in the barbed wire weren't as narrow as I had imagined," said Han Sung Yong, director of the Korean Otter Research Centre.

"They were quite wide, allowing waste to pass through. Humans couldn't get through but the otters were able to move freely between both sides of the border."

A special research project has now been launched to further study the aquatic mammals.

The DMZ Otter Project aims to bring scientists from both South and North Korea in a joint study to monitor the otters."

However, such a collaboration will be difficult to coordinate, as the two Koreas remain technically at war since no peace treaty was signed to formally end the Korean conflict in 1953.

"Even if it can't be done jointly, North Korea can conduct its own research on its side of the border, and we can do the same in South Korea," said Chong Jong Ryol, director of Wildlife Research Centre at Korea University, Tokyo. "I think it's good to push this project through."

Dr Chong visited the North Korean capital recently, and signed a deal with a research centre in Pyongyang.

Under that accord, scientists from both Koreas will collaborate on a study of otters.

However, they will carry out research in their own countries as they cannot travel freely between the two sides.

At their summit earlier this month, leaders of the two Koreas agreed to jointly create an ecological park in the DMZ.

But until that becomes reality, otter researchers from both sides will have to work separately, even as the animals they are studying continue to swim freely across the world's last Cold War frontier.

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