PYONGYANG – There is no more sacred place in North Korea than Mount Paektu — and getting South Korean President Moon Jae-in to such a spot is a propaganda coup unlike any other.
After Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged new steps aimed at salvaging nuclear talks on Wednesday, they decided to use the final day of their three-day summit to go up the symbolic mountain together.
The active volcano, site of one the most violent eruptions in history, is considered not only to be the birthplace of the mythical Dangun, the first ruler of Korea, but also the spiritual epicenter of the North Korean revolution.
It was from the dense forests around Paektu that national founder Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla resistance battled the Japanese colonial forces that governed the entire Korean Peninsula until Japan surrendered at the end of World War II in 1945.
As every North Korean schoolchild could tell you, it is riddled with “secret campsites” where Kim’s supporters fought for Korean independence and honed the revolutionary spirit that would eventually enable them to rise to power after the Japanese were forced out and their own nation split in two as the United States and Soviet Union tried to assert yet another foreign political agenda on the Korean people.
Moon is known for his love of mountain climbing and has trekked in the Himalayas at least twice. The president has long stated that he would love to one day visit Mount Paektu, which is also sometimes spelled Baekdu.
“I have a dream that I have not been able to fulfill for a long time, which is trekking Mount Paektu and the Kaema Plateau,” Moon said during a banquet after his first summit with Kim in April, which took place at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two neighbors. “I believe Chairman Kim will make that dream come true for sure.”
Although Mount Paektu straddles the North Korea-China border and can be reached from China, where it is known as Mount Changbai, Moon had never visited it before.
That is because when he goes up Mount Paektu, he wants to go “stepping on our soil,” Kim Eui-kyeom, spokesman for the presidential Blue House, told reporters before the trip on Wednesday.
Moon flew separately to the region before joining Kim. They took a cable car together to Heaven Lake, a caldera at the top of the mountain, and walked around the area along with other officials from both sides.
Moon’s parents fled the North during the 1950-53 Korean War, shortly before Moon was born in South Korea in 1953.
A former human rights lawyer, Moon said in a 2017 book published months before his election as president that he wanted to “finish his life” in his mother’s North Korean hometown doing pro-bono service. “When peaceful reunification comes, the first thing I want to do is to take my 90-year-old mother and go to her hometown,” Moon wrote.
Images of Mount Paektu are everywhere in the North.
It is on the logo of the state-run television network. Giant mosaics of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il — the current leader’s father — standing on the rim of its crater, the shining blue waters of Lake Chon in the caldera below, are ubiquitous. Slogans referring to Paektu are almost too numerous to keep track of. Kim Jong Un and his forebears, in fact, are often simply called “the peerlessly great men of Mount Paektu.”
Kim Jong Un has made Paektu something of a pet project.
He has visited the mountain several times and has had the closest city, Samjiyon, rebuilt into a showcase of the socialist revolution.
Reporters were allowed to see the city last month as Kim was making an inspection tour. The scene was almost biblical in its scale — tens of thousands of “soldier-builders” in olive-colored uniforms and yellow hard hats had been mobilized to essentially build the new, model city up from the ground. Workers and students joined them, digging ditches, flattening the surfaces of new roads.
A similar, but smaller-scale scene was taking place simultaneously on the mountain itself.
On a face of the mountain visible just beyond the area where visitors view Paektu’s crater lake, workers were putting the final touches on the lettering of a slogan in praise of the Kim family.
On Thursday, Moon was almost sure to see that slogan — “Mount Paektu is the Sacred Soul of the Revolution,” with the signature of Kim Il Sung — freshly painted in white.
In North Korea, everything is political. Even the mountains.