Baekryeong (Baengnyeong) Island

Baekryeong is an island within the jurisdiction of Incheon City, South Korea, that lies 8 only miles at the closest from North Korea. It also forms the westernmost point of Korea, little more than 100 miles across the sea from China’s Shandong Peninsula. The island itself is less than 8 miles east to west and 6 miles south to north, and 1.5 miles from the marine Northern Limit Line established during the Korean War – an invisible boundary separating South and North. (Pronunciation and spelling notes: Baek-ryeong has two syllables and is sometimes spelled and pronounced Baeng-nyeong, or spelled starting with “P” instead of “B”.)

Baekryeong consists of a varied and scenic landscape with famous cliffs, pebbled seashores, complex wetlands, rice-field agriculture, and a large reservoir formed during tidal-flat “reclamation” in the 1980s. It is cold in winter with 36 snowy days on average, is mild or hot in summer, and has many foggy days in spring. The island gets approximately 30 inches of precipitation per year. The island is a biodiversity hotspot for multiple reasons: its geographic location, on a major bird migration route between China and the Korean Peninsula; its diverse habitats; and its closeness to the Korean Demilitarized Zone, where development pressure was until recently less intense than elsewhere in South Korea. Baekryeong one of only two places in South Korea supporting a relict population of Spotted Seal, and research since 2013 has confirmed the presence of several nationally threatened amphibians and more than 350 bird species. Species here include the Critically Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting, flying in flocks from China across the shortest sea-crossing; thousands of overwintering geese and a few globally Endangered Oriental Storks; and a small number of nesting Black-faced Spoonbills.

The island has a small population of residents (estimated at fewer than 5,000, disproportionately elderly and therefore declining), a very substantial military presence, and heavy visitation by tourists. Tourists come to Baekryeong for the picturesque scenery and the view to North Korea, even though access is limited to high-speed ferries, three of them making the 4-hour trip from Incheon each day during the summer tourist season. The frequent heavy fog, however, forces the ferry operators to cancel many voyages. From April to October, especially at weekends, 1,500 or more tourists arrive each day, touring the island by bus, stopping at half-a-dozen spots and two restaurants, and staying one or two nights (crowding out singing rooms and bars), before returning to Incheon.

Baekryeong also has a rich mythology and history. In one story, a white crane appears in a dream to reunite lost lovers; in another, a daughter sacrifices herself to restore her father’s eyesight and is rewarded for her courage and filial piety by becoming Empress.

There are claims that Christianity was introduced to Korea through Baekryeong. Protestant missionaries first visited the island in the early 1800s and there are now more than a dozen churches on the island. One of these churches is already a must-see stop on package tours to the island.

The island has been and is an important military outpost and flashpoint. A temporary airfield (K-53) was constructed on one of the beaches during the Korean War; military tensions and confrontations continue today. Land mines and fortifications dot the landscape.

Since 2013, Dr. Nial Moores has led research studies for Birds Korea to document the exceptional biodiversity of Baekryeong Island, from amphibians to birds. In 2019, SAVE International assisted Dr. Moores on Birds Korea’s sustainable nature tourism report prepared for the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

In 2019, major threats to the island’s biodiversity materialized:

First, the funding ($92 million US) for a long-proposed “small” civilian and military airport was approved, with an eye toward construction later in 2020. Details of that proposal were not released in the public domain and are not known to local people. The runway is most likely to be located adjacent to the main reservoir which is used by several thousand geese and ducks. A feasibility study of wind speeds and directions was completed and several options considered, but no serious evaluation of environmental, air safety, or community impacts has been undertaken. A proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) would address factors such as dangers to air safety due to bird strikes; loss of habitat and disturbance impacts on people and biodiversity; influences of increased tourism on water resources, culture, and ecosystems; and alternative means of access from the mainland. Also, Baekryeong is experiencing a chronic and worsening groundwater shortage, and the long-term sustainability of the island’s people will depend on conserving groundwater and managing the water cycle with constructed wetlands or other environmental engineering.

Second, a well-funded “Bible Land” theme park was swiftly moving through planning and design — the media reported that $30 million US had been raised and construction could start in 2020. As initially conceived over the previous two years, Bible Land contained proposals for large paved spaces, massive statues of Jesus and other biblical icons, and ship replicas. Following an initial meeting in November 2019 and a series of meetings with ten of the island’s ministers in January 2020, the lead minister for the project, Minister Kim Ju Seong, has publicly expressed his openness to embracing ecological concepts into the proposal and his desire for a deeper collaboration, including with SAVE International and researchers from UC Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. Early discussions focused on the need to create a space that would help to protect God’s creatures, such as re-creating a living folk village based on the early 1800s, with traditional styles of agriculture and historical culture blended with the Christian narrative brought by missionaries when they first came to the island. This village could be one of a series of similarly-themed stops (each from a different decade) or vastly different stops across the island: a pilgrimage of sorts, which could help encourage tourists to stay longer and to engage much more deeply with the island.

The concept for Bible Land originated in Kim Ju Seong’s visit to Orlando, Florida, home to the Holy Land theme park. He brought the idea back in order to highlight the 200-year history of Christianity on the island. Minister Kim’s first choice location is 30 hectares of fields north of Baekryeong’s main reservoir, which is the same site as one alternative for the proposed airport. This land was filled about 30 years ago as “reclamation” of a shallow aquatic area. It is not owned by the church, a fact that might put the ministers in conflict with the military and lead them to try to delay the airport.

Some local people, and even some on the mainland, agree that many Christians would want to visit Baekryeong to learn more about its Christian history. But most people on the island don’t seem to care much about either Bible Land or the airport. Some ministers and owners of motels or other tourist businesses probably favor both. A few people do oppose the airport, but not publicly. Because the military controls much of the island, and the central government makes most decisions without community input, there is not much democratic, grassroots action. In addition, most of the islanders are suspicious of outsiders and of NGOs. They are too busy with their own lives to risk confrontation with political leaders who are almost always pro-development.

In this context, Dr. Moores asked SAVE and the Berkeley research team to analyze these threats and propose an evolving alternative plan for Baekryeong Island. This plan would provide new or expanded place-based economies; would accommodate tourists of numbers and varieties suited to the island’s ecological carrying capacity and cultural appropriateness; would re-envision Bible Land to be culturally nuanced, sustainable, and biodiversity-rich; would develop nature-based and wildbird tourism facilities; and would provide environmentally informed access to the island.

In the supporting documents for the airport, SAVE and the researchers found unrealistic projections of tourism, no accounting for noise and pollution on the residents or the birds, and no mention of fog preventing flights. Baekryeong residents today may never see or hear an airplane in the sky, but the airport documents predicted an average of 30 turboprop airplanes flying to the island each day, and growing every year without limit. When the students examined the precedents of similar religious theme parks in the U.S., they found only failures, especially in cold-winter locations as at Baekryeong.

The team developed two proposals. Both rejected the airport, in favor of enhancing ferry service with a new generation of high-speed vessels. One recommended a dispersed network of attractions — religious, ecological, and cultural — each uniquely tailored to its setting and connected by shuttle busses. The other suggested a central “sanctuary” campus for religious tourists and scholars, including gardens and a museum, in a valley of relatively low habitat value for birds. To solve the problem of securing enough drinking water, the proposals advised capturing clean rainwater from the roofs of buildings, based on successful precedents from other villages in Korea. Fortunately, Baekryeong’s summer tourist season is also the rainiest time of year.

Dr. Moores and the Berkeley team prepared a presentation for audiences around Baekryeong Island, since any successful plan must include the voices of local residents. In April 2020, Dr. Moores and his colleague Choony Kim (a leader with the environmental group KFEM) met with the chief proponents of Bible Land and reported this good news to SAVE: “They love the concept … [T]he 2018 version of [B]ible [L]and looks to have been stopped dead in its tracks; and discussions will now move towards designs aiming at helping create a Resilient Baekryeong.”

You can download the Baekryeong presentation by Dr. Moores (in Korean). Please find the link on our SAVE Presents page.

You can also see some samples of the alternative plan in the 2020 issue of the SAVE newsletter, Spoonbills Speak. Please find the link on our Spoonbills Speak page.

Updates in Feb 2021, as reported by Dr. Nial Moores: The original plan for Bible Land has been canceled. The airport was approved in late 2020, but no construction has begun yet.