The leaders of South and North Korea finished their summit with a meeting on top of a volcano. Why is that such a big deal? And can symbolic acts like this help secure a safer future for the Korean peninsula?
Paektusan, or mount Paektu on the Chinese-North Korean border is truly an impressive place, even if there are no world leaders standing on top holding hands. The deep blue volcanic lake, often hidden or surrounded by sees of clouds, is no doubt a wonder of nature. Seeing the clouds reflected in this ‘lake in the sky’, gives the distinct impression that it is here that heaven touches earth. The lake is known as ‘the lake of heaven’ for a reason. It is the stuff of myths.
Mount Paektu is according to Korean mythology the place from where the Korean race originated. A ‘son of heaven’ married a bear-turned-woman and she gave birth on mount Paektu to a son called Dangun, who founded the first Korean kingdom.
It is no wonder then, that the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, claimed that his son, Kim Jung Il was born on this mountain and that he possessed the pure Paektu bloodline, descending from ancient kings. Outside of North Korea these claims are disputed, as the birth of Kim Jung Il was recorded to have taken place in the Soviet Union. But aside from that, mount Paektu was also a base of resistance against the Japanese and later played an important part in the Korean war. The serene natural beauty hides a brutal history of a struggle for independence.
As the mountain of heroes, mount Paekdu became the pride of North Korea. North Koreans re-connected their identity as a nation strongly with their mythological roots. South Koreans, however, were cut off from these roots by the division of the country. This is a painful reality for many South Koreans. Imagine your nation would lose control over and even access to the most significant historical sites which were key in the formation of your country and with which you identify.
The recent meetings between the leaders from North and South, have been high on symbolism. It is one of the reasons the summits have been criticized. Sceptics say it all empty words and there are no concrete and verifiable changes. Also, some crucial issues have not even been discussed, such as human rights under the Kim regime. They would say this diplomatic process is like a balloon, that could easily burst and deflate, sending the nations off in a new round of threats and confrontation.
Although this is certainly a danger, the choice of such symbolic places could also indicate a sincere and shared desire for a different future. North and South have been divided long enough that the lives of their citizens have little left in common. Their would be many reasons they could choose not to associate with each other. Still, both feel that the current situation is not right. Thousands of years of common nationhood are not soon forgotten. So they try to find common ground.
When I see these leaders on top of mount Paektu, I feel they are like a divorced couple, who perhaps cannot agree on who is to blame for their present state, but who long back to a time when it was not so. They go back in their past to find a connecting point. And they found it on Mount Paektu, the place where they both have their roots. Their meeting in this particular spot is an expression of that ancient reality, which they still believe is relevant for their nations’ futures.
The question is, as they descend back in the 21st century reality of their divided nation, the mistrust, hate and hostility of decades, will the magic of Mount Paektu prove to be strong enough to continue the painful process of reconciliation? Or will they need the stronger magic of another Hill of Reconciliation? Of another place where heaven touched earth?
Contributing Author: Kajsa