[Outlook]The East Sea and Mount Paektu

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[Outlook]The East Sea and Mount Paektu

Koreans are raising their voices over the Dokdo issue, as Japan has claimed that the ownership of the islets is disputed. Misunderstanding the new Korean administration’s appeasement policy, Japan repeated its irrational argument. Japan has persistently claimed ownership of the Dokdo islets, striding forward at times and pretending to retreat at others.

Korean society is agitated again and is making the same response as it has in the past. Some people threw eggs at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and lawmakers who are sensitive to public sentiment flew to Dokdo and made determined expressions before the cameras.

How long will the rage last this time?

While Dokdo, the last child of our territory, is becoming an issue again, Mount Paektu remains as silent as a dormant volcano.

In 2002, when China’s Northeast Project was first revealed, Korean society became as enraged as it was over Dokdo.

However, in 2004, diplomats from the two countries made a verbal agreement that they would avoid making the issue a political one and instead resolve it through academic channels. People then quieted down over the Northeast Project, as if the dispute over the ownership of Mount Paektu were resolved.

The two issues remain unresolved, but Korean society is treating Mount Paektu like an extinct volcano.

Starting on July 14, I drove 1,000 kilometers in the Mount Paektu area, studying China’s Northeast Project. The atmosphere was distinctly different from 1998 when I traveled there as a backpacker. Back then, the region was hardly developed at all. On the day I climbed up to the crater lake called Chunji, I heard the news about the re-emergence of the Dokdo issue. The first line of the Korean national anthem occurred to me at that moment: “The East Sea and Mount Paektu.”

It is Korea’s destiny to have Japan and China as neighbors, but it was still hard to believe the coincidence of the two occasions for me.

Mount Paektu is not entirely under Korean control now, even though Koreans have always regarded the mountain as the spring of national spirit.

The stances and attitudes that South Koreans, North Koreans, ethnic Koreans living in China and the Chinese have towards Mount Paektu are as different as four different paths on the mountain.

China is staring at Mount Paektu with its eyes burning with passion. The country is pushing to spread the perception that Mount Changbai, as China calls the mountain, is Chinese territory, in order to maximize economic benefits from the area.

The Mount Changbai Airport is scheduled to open on July 28, after two years of expensive construction, and will be ready to draw tourists from inside and outside the country.

Ethnic Koreans in China feel left out. The jurisdiction over Mount Paektu was taken away from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and given to the ethnic Han-led commission for protection and development of Mount Changbai.

A Korean living in Yanji says that once the Mount Changbai Airport opens, tourists can travel the three tracks on the southern, western and northern sides of the mountain within one hour. It will take more than three hours to get to the route which starts in Yanbian and thus this route will lose tourists, he added worriedly.

North Korea looks at Mount Paektu lethargically. Although the North has the eastern route of the mountain, it has enough problems just staving off starvation.

China has parking lots on the southern side of Chunji Lake and it takes all benefits from tourism there. Rumors are swirling that North Korea gets food in return, showing that North Korea lacks both the competence and the will to develop tourism.

South Korea is as indifferent to Mount Paektu as it is geographically removed from it. Tourism in Mount Paektu through Samjiyeon was postponed due to ideological and political calculations. Park Sun-young, a professor at Pohang University of Science and Technology, advises that South Korea should prepare a long-term strategy to resolve disputes over the ownership of Mount Paektu and Gando.

The poet Ko Un described Dokdo as “the gallbladder of my ancestors,” meaning that it represents our spirit. The poet wanted to warn us that we will lose our national spirit if we fail to protect the islets.

Even though Mount Paektu is not now in the spotlight in Korean society, after reunification the mountain will become a center of the Korean spirit, encompassing those from the South, the North, and ethnic Koreans in China.

Deep within Mount Paektu, the heart of all Korean nationals, magma is bubbling at this very moment.

*The writer is the Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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