[FOUNTAIN]A sacred mountain, soon visible at lastIn 1936, a large scientific expedition headed for Mount Paektu. The team had 100 members including 30 geologists, biologists and agricultural scientists. Their mission was to research the mountain’s geology, animals and plants, and the folk traditions of people who lived there.
Despite their numbers, the group hiked in silence. They thought it would be inappropriate to speak in loud voices on the nation’s sacred mountain. When they needed to talk, they spoke in whispers. When the team reached the summit, they did not say that they had ascended the mountain. Instead, they used the word for “descend.” These details come from the reminiscences of the late Yu Tal-young, a widely respected scholar who joined the expedition.
In Korea, Mount Baekdu is the mountain of mountains. Gosanja Kim Jeong-ho called it “the father of the Joseon mountains.” Doseon, an expert in the traditional practice of divining energy by the configuration of the ground, once said, “Our nation rises from Mount Paektu and finishes at Mount Jiri. So our country’s power is based on water and stems from the trees.” This means that Mount Paektu is the foundation of the country.
Mount Paektu is also the mythical birthplace of the Korean people. It is where Dangun, said to be the founder of the country, was born. This is why Yukdang Choi Seon-nam often described the mountain as “the origin of our nation.” He also referred to it as “the origin of our culture and the mother of our history.”
It was announced last weekend that beginning in August, South Korean tourists will be allowed to climb Mount Paektu from the North Korean side. Until now, they had to go to approach the mountain from the Chinese side of the border. There have been some political criticisms of certain aspects of the agreement between North Korea and Hyundai Asan to facilitate this tourism. But there is no denying that, in our divided country, it is exciting news that we will soon be able to set foot on the Korean side of Mount Paektu. What does the southeastern part of Mount Paektu look like? How magnificent is its view of the seven peaks on the North Korean side of the border, such as Paektu Peak and Jaha Peak?
The Joseon Dynasty scholar Park Jong, who wrote the first travel essays about Mount Paektu, put it this way: “Gazing at Paektu Peak, glittering in the sun, it looked like towers of jade standing under the sky... just like something from a drawing.” He wrote, “The stone peaks standing in line look like a folding screen, and the peak stands tall, like a true gentlemen.” Now let’s hope the tourists who visit the mountain maintain the attitude of a true gentleman. Like the expedition team Mr. Yu joined.
by Lee Sang-il
* The writer is a deputy political news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.