Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The meaning of Mt Paektu

How North Korea taps into the symbolic voltage of a mysterious volcano

Has Kim Jong-un taken up winter mountaineering? Exactly a month ago, he was again bestriding the Korean peninsula’s highest peak. A local newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, reported that "His eyes reflected the strong beams of the gifted great person seeing in the majestic spirit of Mount Paektu the appearance of a powerful socialist nation which dynamically advances full of vigour without vacillation at any raving dirty wind on the planet."

Kim Jong-un bestrides Mt Paektu in December 2017
It’s easy to mock the style of North Korean pronouncements. But this may run the risk of underestimating their effectiveness, warns B R Myers, a North Korea-watcher based at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. In his view, the regime’s “ideology has generally enjoyed the support of the North Korean people through good times and bad”, adding that about half of the refugees who make it over the border to China end up by voluntarily returning home.

Mt Paektu (the "white-headed peak") figures prominently in this propaganda. Visits to its snow-covered summit by the Supreme Leader often preface or follow important decisions, alleges a popular UK newspaper. Kim Jong-un last visited the peak in September 2016, right after the country’s fifth nuclear test. He was also there in April 2015, just before executing a former defense chief, and in November 2013, before executing his own uncle, among other top officials.

North Korean commemorative stamp showing
Kim Jong Il atop his native mountain
And this is to say nothing of the mountain’s ubiquity as a backdrop for the Kim dynasty in all manner of official productions, from postage stamps to oil paintings.

In his book, The cleanest race – how North Koreans see themselves and why it matters, B R Myers offers a convincing explanation for this prominence. Many see North Korea as a hardline Marxist-Leninist regime. Yet this is misleading, Myers says. For, when Kim Il-sung established his regime in the late 1940s, he chose not follow the model of his Soviet mentors but reached instead for Japan’s pre-war emperor cult, to which Korea had been intensively exposed during the country’s period as a colony.

Painting of (l to r) Mrs Kim, the infant Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-Il 

This thesis explains a lot. It makes clear why members of the Kim dynasty are often depicted riding on a white horse – typically in a mountainous setting – an imperial motif that can be traced back as far as Napoleon. As for Mt Paektu, it simply replaced Mt Fuji as a symbol of national prowess. This, in turn, explains why official sources so assiduously insist on Mt Paektu as the birthplace of Kim Jong-il, the present Supreme Leader's progenitor.

In doing so, they tap into a legend that a mythical founder of the Korean nation descended on the peak thousands of years ago. In effect, “Kim Il-sung turned his whole family into a divine entity. He knew theocracies last longer than any type of regime,” says Song Bong-sun, a historian at Korea University in South Korea, as quoted in the Taipei Times.

Even the snow in our header picture fits this narrative, as a symbol of the cultural and ideological purity that North Korea preserves from corruption by the foreign-dominated south. So the answer to our opening question – has Kim Jong-un taken up mountaineering – is clearly “no”. Rather, he’s revealed himself as a master of misapplied meizanology – the art and science of divining a mountain’s meaning. And, in Kim's case, of exploiting it too.

The majestic spirit of Mt Paektu ("White head peak")
Photo: Wikipedia
Of course, Mt Paektu is no Mt Fuji. Sited on the remote northern border, it never figured as centrally in Korea's classical literature and art as Mt Fuji did in Japan’s. And at 2,744 metres, it tops out a full kilometre below its Japanese counterpart – although its altitude is curiously similar to that of another "white mountain", Hakusan (2,702 metres), one of Japan’s three most sacred peaks.

A crater lake from central casting (Landsat image)
Even so, Mt Paektu does have a "majestic spirit", to borrow the Rodong Sinmun's wordsIt has mystery – nobody is quite sure how a volcano managed to grow so far from an obvious plate boundary – and it has a magnificent crater lake, on a scale that hints at the incalculable menace lurking beneath. But suggestions that a gigantic eruption might be triggered by nearby bomb tests – thus hoisting the regime with its own petard – are probably wishful thinking.

In the end, you almost have to applaud how adeptly the three Kims have co-opted their top mountain into shoring up their legitimacy. At the same time, one wonders how long it will take their regime’s arch-antagonist – himself no slouch at self-aggrandisement – to take a leaf out of their meizanological playbook. Or, on second thoughts, perhaps it really is better not to go there.


B R Myers, The cleanest race - How North Koreans see themselves – and why it matters, Melville House, 2010.

Banyan column, "Peak patriotism", The Economist, December 16, 2017

"Only a rumbling volcano could make North Korea and the West play nice", New York Times, December 9, 2016

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