An Interview with Republic of Korea Secretary of Forestry Won Sop Shin

Won Sop Shin was recently appointed the Secretary of Forestry for the Republic of Korea. Dr. Shin is  professor of social forestry at Chungbuk National University, and serves as Vice President of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine (INFOM).

Won Sop Shin, Secretary of Forestry for the Republic of Korea Photo courtesy Dr. Shin.

Won Sop Shin, Secretary of Forestry for the Republic of Korea
Photo courtesy Dr. Shin.

South Korea is establishing forest therapy bases similar to what is being utilized in Japan, promoting eco-tourism and providing access to the restorative health benefits of time in nature. Dr. Shin recently took time to answer questions about forests, human health and INFOM.

Describe your background, how you became interested in forests as a career and as a research interest. 

I was basically exposed to forests since the day I was born. I spent my childhood in Jincheon, Chungbuk Province, an area surrounded by rich forests. I began my studies in forestry in 1978 when I entered Chungbuk National University. After graduating from college, I continued my studies in Canada. I earned a master’s degree at the Brunswick University and did my Ph.D. in the University of Toronto, majoring in social forestry (forest recreation), In particular, my area of specialty includes forest recreation and healing. Since 1993, I have been a professor in forestry at Chungbuk National University.

What are the greatest challenges you face as Secretary of Forestry?

Dr. Shin: The Republic of Korea successfully transformed its denuded land into rich forests in less than half a century. It resulted in a dramatic increase in the volume of forest resources. However, compared to most of developed countries, industrial value of Korea’s forest resources remain relatively low and the country lacks forest-related infrastructure such as forest road. In addition, 70% of forests are privately owned, with a large number of small and fragmented forest holdings. This is making forest management difficult in Korea.

Due to high economic growth, demand for forests and forest-related products has been diversified, ranging from conventional timber use to recreation and healing. The Korea Forest Service is establishing forest policies aimed at maximizing the value of forests resources and benefits. The main objective of Korea’s forest policy is to come up with the optimal plan to meet these needs.

What are your top priorities during your time as Forest Minister?

A hiking excursion in the forests of the Republic of Korea Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

A hiking excursion in the forests of the Republic of Korea
Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

Dr. Shin: With the inauguration of Park Geun-hye Administration, we are working under the vision of “creating a green welfare nation where forests bring happiness to our people”. By establishing a virtuous cycle of various benefits from forests, our goal is to make forests lively places where people live, work and play.  With this background, we will pull efforts to come up with a prospective policy alternative which can maximize the contribution of forests to forest welfare. For example, the Korea Forest Service has been promoting the policy called “From cradle to grave: Life with forests” since 2003. This aims at providing public benefits from forests to people of all ages, encompassing all life-cycles (from prenatal to death). Open to all public, we provide forest kindergarten, camping, education, recreation as well as tree burial services.

Are you establishing forest therapy bases similar to what has been done in Japan? Describe why you are doing this. What process are you using to identify sites, and then certify them? How many would you like to establish? How will these be promoted. Will you do research in these forests?

People enjoying the forests of South Korea. Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

People enjoying the forests of South Korea.
Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

Dr. Shin: Regarding the selection procedure of forest therapy complexes, the Selection Committee composed of experts from forestry, medicine and environment will thoroughly review the candidate sites which have been previously submitted by local governments.

The construction of the National Baekdu-daegan Forest Therapy Complex, anticipated to become the landmark of forest healing in Korea, is well underway. This complex include the research center on forest healing. It is planned that at least one forest therapy complex will be established in each of the seven different regions of Korea. Further research on therapeutic effects of forest environment, development of therapeutic programs, services and forest education will be carried out in the research centers of these complexes.

Do the people of South Korea have a tradition of spending time in nature? Hiking? What type of programs are offered to encourage people to get outside and explore nature?

Enjoying a hiking excursion in the Republic of Korea Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

Enjoying a hiking excursion in the Republic of Korea
Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

Dr Shin: Since the forests make up 2/3 of our land, Korean people naturally took the mountain as a place for their livelihood. Ever since the ancient times, we sought the life within the nature and followed the laws of the nature, such as training our mind and body in the forests.

Recently, due to the continuous building of the national forest-trails (hiking/trekking trails) there are more people enjoying hiking. Also, beside the original vertical-hiking, there has been an increase in people enjoying the horizontal-hiking (around mountain, field, village, etc.) due to the opening of the Jiri Mountain walking paths and trails.

Programs that have been Developed

Forest Commentator Program: This program systematically convey’s forest’s various values and functions to the people and also guides various ways to experience forest.  Number of participants: (2006) 122  (2009) 767,000  (2012) 1,537,000

Forest Kindergarten Program: Provides various forest experiencing opportunities and education in connection with the kindergartens·nurseries. Number of participants: (2008) 81 institutions, 1,300 people  (2012) 3,910 institutions 420,000 people (32 fold increase)

Youth Forest Education Program: A program to provide correct understanding of forests and cultivate forest-loving mind to our youths, in order to manage and conserve our future forest.  Participants: total 690,000 (450,000 elementary school students, 160,000 middleschool students, and 80,000 highschool students)

Teacher’s Training Course for promoting forest education and enhancing capability: Evey year, Government institutions and civil organizations provide to teachers the training program for the forest-education.  

Forest Training Institute’s forest experiencing course for teachers/Forest-loving Boy-scout Teacher’s program: 2,556 participants since ’09.

Supports for Creative Experience Program: With the adoption of the five-day school week system, this program promotes the development of various experience-centered theme-programs, trying to provide supports for the family-centered recreational culture.

Distinctive theme-programs for each recreational forests: total 32 programs

Forest Healing Program: Creation/management of ‘Healing Forest’ to efficiently introduce and provide experiences for forest’s various healing effects. Locations of ‘Healing Forest’: San-um, Chungtae-san (Mt.), Jangsung, and Jangheung

Inclusive program for Disabled People: To provide forest experiences to the disabled, this program operates 19 rooms for reservation in 14 recreational forests.

Hiking/Trekking Experiencing Education for Youth: Via ‘Baekdu Daegan Forest-Eco Tour’, allowing youths to develop natural spirit and also to provide better understandings and patriotism.

What are the most significant threats facing the forests of South Korea? The environment in general?

Dr. Shin: Even recognized by the United Nations, Korea is known for the successful forest-rehabilitation projects. Korea’s forests make up about 64% of our land, and it is forming the basis of the ecosystem as well as providing the shelter for the various species and fauna. Due to the global problem of climate change (global warming), Korean forests’ vitality is also being threatened. Due to the climate abnormalities caused by climate change, there are enlarging trends for forest disasters (forest fire, disease, and pest, etc.), and this became a threat for the Korean forest ecosystem.

Because of the global warming, the plant and vegetation zones are predicted to move, and this will cause major changes and threats in the biodiversity.

Korean Fir tree, one of the typical indigenous Korean plants, is losing its dispersion and original habitat, and plants living in the highlands are in danger of extinction.

To protect forest from threats caused by climate change, the Korea Forest Service is trying to conserve Korea’s biodiversity and forest genetic resources via in and ex-situ conservation, and also via setting the preservation areas.

How do see as the role of INFOM internationally? How can we get researchers from other regions involved in this organization?

Dr. Shin: Lifestyle has changed drastically due to the increase in urbanization and technology development, causing many life-style-related health problems in the modern societies. These unhealthy problems are known to stem from the disconnection with the nature. Therefore, INFOM should play a role in restoring this connection with natural environments, thereby promoting human health, welfare and quality of life. I highlight the need for encouraging experts from different fields of sciences to take part in INFOM activities as well as for expanding research fields.

Concluding Thoughts

Dr.Shin: As forests holds multi-functional values ranging from forestry production, eco-environment to land resources, it is not desirable to manage forests only for improving one particular function. Today, the international society is in pursuit of sustainable forest management to optimize various forest functions for both the present and next generations. In line with this global concept, Korea also continues to manage forests sustainably so as to improve broader multiple functions and values of forest. I am determined to mange our forests in a well-balanced way between resources development and restoration, with the view of contributing to national economy and land development as well as improving the quality of life (through green welfare.).

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Outside Magazine’s December 2012 Article on “The Nature Cure” Sheds Light on the Emerging Field of Forest Medicine

Outside Magazine’s December 2012 issue includes an in-depth article by Florence Williams entitled “The nature cure: Take two hours of pine forest and call me in the morning.”  Williams describes the emerging focus on the connection between nature and health as the “slow nature movement.” The article is the most complete review of its kind in a magazine that I have found, and pieces together the research taking place around the world. She cites the work of Alan Logan, Richard Louv, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan and others who have helped raise awareness of the links between nature and health.

Williams visited Japan to learn firsthand about the practice of shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, which is walking in nature to obtain the health benefits.  Shinrin yoku is a Shinto and Buddhist inspired practice that “lets nature enter the body through all five senses.” She discovered that forest bathing has been standard preventive medicine in Japan for thousands of years. The stressed masses from Tokyo and other urban areas flee to the forest for rejuvenation, trying to escape “karoshi” or death by overwork. Between 2.5 million and 5 million visitors walk the “Forest Therapy Trails” in Japan each year. The Japanese government currently has 48 “Forest Therapy Bases” with plans to expand to 100, and has spent over $4 million on forest bathing research since 2004. The South Korean government believes in the practice as well and is investing $140 million for a National Forest Therapy Center to be completed by 2014.

Autumn leaves in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Williams interviews Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist and vice director of Chiba University’s Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences. Miyazaki emphasizes that spending time in nature helps facilitate a feeling of comfort because our rhythms become synchronized with those of the environment. During her visit to Japan, Williams also talks with Dr. Qing Li, Senior Assistant Professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo who has done extensive research on how spending time in forests impacts the immune system. Dr. Li is asked how he utilizes nature for health and describes using cypress oils for aromatherapy nightly. He also suggests taking a vacation to nature, not the city; at least one weekend a month visiting a natural area; visiting a park at least once a week; trying to walk under trees when walking in urban areas; and going to quiet places, preferably near water.

Williams also reviews some of the recent research linking time in nature to improved health, and provides suggestions for how to connect with nature. This article is an excellent overview of where the emerging field of forest medicine is headed. A key observation made by Williams is that in the United States “researchers are mostly showing people pictures of nature, while the Japanese are pouring it into every orifice.”  To validate the claims that “nature heals” and gain acceptance as a viable preventative healthcare option, the Japanese approach to research must be more fully embraced in the United States. As research continues to reveal “a nature cure”, hopefully more in the U.S. will take notice and loosen their grip on their smart phone long enough to experience the benefits nature has to offer.