Politics, pride in leaders trip to 'sacred' N. Korea volcano

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.

The still 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 their country's defeat ended 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.

Images of 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 — current leader Kim Jong Un'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 forbearers, in fact, are often simply called "the peerlessly great men of Mount Paektu."

Kim Jong Un has made Paektu, which straddles the border with China, something of a pet project.

He has visited the mountain several times and has ordered the closest city, Samjiyon, rebuilt into a showcase of the socialist revolution.

The Associated Press was 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 hardhats 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.


Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @EricTalmadge