As It Happens

Two British scientists visit North Korea's mysterious Mt. Paektu volcano

Mount Paektu is sacred ground in North Korea; a symbol of of the ruling Kim family and the revolution that led to the creation of the hermit kingdom. It is also home to a giant volcano, responsible for one of the largest eruptions in human history. But because of its delicate location, the volcano has never been properly studied ......

Mount Paektu is sacred ground in North Korea; a symbol of of the ruling Kim family and the revolution that led to the creation of the hermit kingdom. It is also home to a giant volcano, responsible for one of the largest eruptions in human history. But because of its delicate location, the volcano has never been properly studied ... until now.

Two British scientists are just back from a trip to the remote mountain, which straddles North Korea's border with China.

"It's a really spectacular volcano that owes its present-day form to a huge eruption in the 10th century," explains Clive Oppenheimer, a professor of volcanology with the University of Cambridge. "The eruption more or less decapitated it, leaving a huge crater about five kilometres across that's filled with a deep blue lake. So it's very dramatic to look at."

Little is known about Mt. Paektu or its history. Scientists know the millenial eruption was large enough to cover most of eastern Asia with its ash, but they still aren't sure exactly when it occurred.

"It happened around 940 AD but it's interesting; we don't have a firm historical date for it."

  The volcano's location is even a mystery; unlike most volcanoes, Mt. Paektu is not situated on a tectonic plate, which usually accounts for the seismic activity that leads to eruptions. 

Prof. Oppenheimer said it was North Korea that initiated their research trip. He said officials reached out to the international volcanology community because they were concerned about recent seismic activity under the volcano.

"They've given us access to all the sites of interest. We've put in some seismic stations on the volcano and we were also taken by the Korean geologists to lots of locations where we could look at the most interesting rocks. We had a pretty free run up around the mountain."

Prof. Oppenheimer said that he believes Mt. Paektu will almost certainly erupt again, but there's no signs that an eruption is imminent.

Another potential concern for the North Koreans is the impact nuclear testing could have on the volcano. One of the country's test sites is believed to be within 100 kilometres of Mt. Paektu. Could that affect the volcano?

"It's conceivable. Any large source of Earth-shaking can induce some minor earthquakes at some distance away," Prof. Oppenheimer said, although he stressed that wasn't something anyone asked or discussed with his team.

Mt. Paektu holds a special place in North Korea's cultural history. It is seen as a symbol of the ruling Kim family and of the revolution that propelled it to power.

On the North Korean side of the mountain, the region is spotted with "revolutionary historical sites" and secret camps from which Kim Il-sung, North Korea's first President, is said to have led attacks against Japan, who held the Korean peninsula until its surrender at the end of the Second World War.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans visit the mountain for political indoctrination retreats each year, especially during the summer months. North Korea is also hoping to develop the volcano and its crystal blue lake into a viable tourist destination for foreigners.

Prof. Oppenheimer said he and his team expect to return to Mt. Paektu next summer, and hope to host their North Korean counterparts in Cambridge.

- with files from The Associated Press

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