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Koreas hold 2nd round of volcano talks

Meeting downgraded to civilian level to maintain focus of discussion


The two Koreas held another meeting of geologists over a volcano the North honors as its leader’s birthplace Tuesday, a move viewed by both sides as a possible step toward resuming a long-stalled official dialogue.

Meeting for the second time since March 29, experts from the two sides gathered in the North’s border town of Gaeseong to coordinate measures over Mount Baekdu in the wake of escalating concerns over natural disasters following the massive quake in Japan.

Relations between the Koreas, who are technically still at war, remain at the worst point in decades after North Korea conducted two deadly attacks last year that killed 50 South Koreans including two civilians.

Located on the border between North Korea and China, Mount Baekdu is the highest point 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 Koreas.
South Korean delegates cross the inter-Korean border office in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, for talks with North Korea on Mount Baekdu in Gaeseong on Tuesday. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
South Korean delegates cross the inter-Korean border office in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, for talks with North Korea on Mount Baekdu in Gaeseong on Tuesday. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

The North, in particular, claims its leader Kim Jong-il was born there, although outsiders believe that is a fiction conjured up to glorify the dictator.

Having last erupted in 1903, local experts have long said the mountain may still be active, and that an eruption could be powerful enough to affect the entire peninsula.

Pyongyang, suffering from deepening food shortages after South Korea suspended dialogue and aid, was first to propose the experts-led talks last month.

Before departing for Gaeseong, Yoo In-chang, a geologist leading the South Korean delegation, expressed hope that the upcoming discussions would lead to “a deeper understanding” of volcanic activity at the mountain.

“We plan to discuss further on the current conditions of Mount Baekdu and possible joint research in the future,” he told reporters ahead of the meeting.

The impoverished North, which suffered from its worst recorded flooding last summer, is in need of outside assistance for food and fuel, which will be easier to obtain through better relations with Seoul.

Partners of the multinational talks on Pyongyang’s denuclearization agreed not to reopen negotiations with the communist state until it first solves issues with its rival South.

Apparently cautious about expanding the meaning of expert talks, Seoul has downgraded the meeting to a civilian level of academic nature instead of holding a government-level meeting as the North initially proposed.

Some geologists cautiously speculate that an eruption could take place as early as 2014 at Mount Baekdu, citing signs that the volcano remains active.

Evaluations do show some “unusual symptoms” including a 2002 7.3-magnitude earthquake near the mountain. The frequency of quakes has notably increased since then.

Should the volcano erupt, its effect could spread as far as northern America and Greenland, and could cause the temperature to drop by at least two degrees Celsius for months in nearby regions, Seoul’s state-run environment institute said in a recent report.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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