Why Does N.Korea Want to Talk About Mt. Baekdu?

      March 18, 2011 12:33

      North Korea on Thursday called for talks with South Korea to discuss the possibility of Mt. Baekdu erupting. One possible aim is to shift the focus from last year's attacks on the Navy corvette Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island to disaster prevention in attempts to resume dialogue with the South.

      South Korean and Chinese experts have warned for years that the volcano could erupt again, but North Korea had refused to address the issue so far.

      Over the last week the North has suddenly resumed a charm offensive following a period of belligerence. On Tuesday it agreed to accept 27 out of 31 North Koreans who drifted into South Korean waters in early February, even though it earlier threatened dire consequences unless the four who decided to defect were also repatriated. A spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry also said Pyongyang is not opposed to discussing the uranium enrichment issue if the six-party nuclear disarmament talks resume.

      North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun daily on Thursday urged Seoul "not to ridicule inter-Korean relations and talks, but to be sincere," after months of abusing the South Korean government in florid terms.

      "We've opened the door to dialogue wide," it said. But at the same time it denied the North had anything to do with the sinking of the Cheonan, an "incident whose conspiratorial nature was revealed," and maintained the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island was an "appropriate countermeasure." It added the South's demand for denuclearization is a matter the North "should discuss with the U.S."

      The newspaper said, "We have shown the South sincerity and genuineness."

      A facility put up by North Korea to monitor volcanic activity at Mt. Baekdu (file photo).

      But a Unification Ministry said this was "a mere repeat" of the North's previous call for unconditional dialogue, "and doesn't take a step forward on key issues like the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and denuclearization."

      It therefore looks as though the proposal of talks about disaster prevention is merely a pretext to resume dialogue and extract concession, taking advantage of global concern about the risk of another natural disaster in the wake of the recent massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

      Seoul is suspicious, but an intelligence official said, "The issue of a potential volcanic eruption on Mt. Baekdu is something that needs to be checked after the massive earthquake in Japan." However, he added the two sides "still need to address the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong issues if aid to North Korea and other support are to resume."

      A North Korean source pointed out that Mt. Baekdu has huge symbolic significance in North Korea since it is the purported birthplace of Kim Jong-il and where Kim Il-sung fought against the Japanese occupying forces. "So it's surprising to see the North raise the issue of a volcanic eruption there in order to resume talks with South Korea," the source said. "It must be in desperate need of something."

      Since 1989, the regime has forced thousands of university students each year to make a one-week pilgrimage to the area of Mt. Baekdu where Kim Jong-il's official birthplace is located.

      But the Daily NK, which specializes in news from the North, quoted a North Korean source as saying in January a directive from the Central Commission of the Workers Party urged preparations for a possible eruption of Mt. Baekdu. "Party officials in Ryanggang and North Hamgyong provinces, which would be the hardest hit by an eruption, met to discuss measures to deal with such an event," the source added.

      That suggests North Korean officials may be more serious about the threat of an eruption than South Korean officials think.

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