Though longstanding enemies who exchanged fire as recently as November, the two Koreas are geographically divided by just a thin borderline. They are inescapably in the same boat when it comes to natural disasters.
As neighboring Japan struggles to cope with the aftermath of an earthquake and Tsunami that took the lives of thousands of people, the two Koreas agreed to discuss a dormant volcano in the North next week, temporarily laying aside long-running tensions for fear of another regional disaster.
South Korea’s state-run weather agency delivered a call ― through the liaison officials of the two countries ― for a meeting next Tuesday in the South Korean border city of Munsan, a Unification Ministry official told reporters.
“We have accepted North Korea’s proposal to hold talks on the issue,” the official said on the condition of customary anonymity. “More importantly, we proposed that experts of the two sides meet so that they can properly evaluate the extent of possible volcanic activity at Mount Baekdu.”
Eruption possible in a couple of years
Located on the border between North Korea and China, Mount Baekdu is the highest on the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria standing at 2,744 meters. Its Korean name meaning “white-headed mountain,” Baekdu is also considered a sacred symbol of ancestry by both South and North Koreans.
Having last erupted in 1903, local experts have long said the mountain may have an active core threatening the entire peninsula and far beyond.
Some geologists cautiously speculate that an eruption could take place in the next couple of years, citing signs that the mountain has actually remained an active volcano for centuries.
Evaluations do show some “unusual symptoms” including a 2002 7.3-magnitude earthquake which rattled areas in the vicinity of the mountain. The frequency of quakes has notably increased since then.
Should the volcano erupt, it could affect as far as northern America and Greenland, also causing the temperature to drop by at least two degrees Celsius for months in nearby regions, a state-run environment institute said in a recent report.
The volcano could spew out more than 1,000 times more ash than that which tormented Europe during the eruption of an Icelandic volcano last year, it added, comparing the potential danger to the eruption that caused massive global disarray.
“We cannot be certain of anything at the moment,” professor Yoon Sung-hyo of Pusan National University, a local expert on the issue, told a recent forum. “The volcano is showing symptoms of eruption even as we talk, but we cannot presume when or if it will actually happen based on the limited information we now have.
|Cheonji lake at the peak of Mount Baekdu (Korea Herald file photo)|
“Although North Korea is making effort to keep up with the changes taking place, it does not have sufficient facilities to properly cope with the danger,” he said.
“Concessions by both sides” are necessary, the scholar added, suggesting Seoul provide funding to equip the North with better facilities and Pyongyang provide land to set them up.
The weather agency, which has already forged partnership with Japan and China to monitor volcanic activity at Mount Baekdu, said it would deal with the issue with “a long-term vision.”
Seoul’s Korea Meteorological Administration has long sought to set up cooperative measures with Pyongyang on the issue, first suggested during the 2007 talks of the meteorological officials of the two sides.
Along with the partnership between the two Koreas, South Korea should ready itself for “long-term support that will eventually equip North Korea with modernized, sophisticated meteorological facilities,” the agency head said.
Concerns amplified after Japan disaster
Although a volcanic eruption is the last thing the two Koreas would want, the issue may manage to bring the two Koreas to one table despite lingering tensions from the North’s attacks last year.
Naturally the more concerned about the potential eruption of the two, Pyongyang was first to propose talks with Seoul on conducting joint research and on-site surveys.
Shortly ahead of its proposal last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly instructed the authorities to “thoroughly prepare” against possible eruption of the volcano, indicating the highlighted concerns after seeing Japan’s plight.
Kim instructed officials to take thorough measures to protect residents living within 60 kilometers of Mount Baekdu, an official was quoted as saying to an online newspaper here.
Next week’s meeting comes about a month after the two Koreas failed to narrow differences during rare defense talks.
During the talks, the delegation from Pyongyang refused to take the country’s attacks against South Korea to higher-level military talks, making the South reluctant to do the North any favors.
The impoverished North, which suffered among its worst recorded flooding last summer, is in need of outside assistance for food and fuel it will only secure through better relations with Seoul.
Partners of the multinational talks on Pyongyang’s denuclearization agree not to reopen negotiations with the communist state until it first solves issues with its rival South.
North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship and bombed a border island in March and November last year, taking the lives of dozens of sailors as well as two civilians.
By Shin Hae-in (firstname.lastname@example.org)